Dear Dr. Brilliant Cliché;
I was working with kids at a children’s hospital today. On the way out, I found myself standing next to a woman, waiting for an elevator in a deserted side hallway.
The elevator took forever to come and after a minute I noticed that the woman was silently crying. I felt so badly for her, but I didn’t want to intrude.
Crying is a very personal thing. So I remained silent.
On the way out to my car, I wondered, did I do the right thing? I really wanted to reach out to her in some way, even if to simply say
“I’m so sorry for your pain.” But I was a stranger. It might upset her just to have me comment. Yet I wished there was some way to let her know I cared.
Deep sorrow can be such a lonely thing. It felt cold to just walk away.
What is the best thing to do in such circumstances?
Your instincts were good. “I’m so sorry for your pain,” would have been nice. But if you had offered this compassion you would also have had to be willing to listen if she needed to pour her heart out to you. If you aren’t going to be there for that it is best you don’t offer in the first place. I wouldn’t obsess over the missed opportunity. She probably didn’t notice you at all.
Dr. Brilliant Cliché
Granny says: people have very different ways of reacting to and dealing with emotional pain. Some individuals actually get angry if their feelings are commented upon and resent any intrusion. Many people absolutely hate to cry in public and would be acutely embarrassed if you made any remarks about their tears. Others sorely need to be comforted. When the person involved is a total stranger I would go by the cues that they are giving out. An adult who turns away and is trying to hide their tears wants to be left alone. But if that same adult looks at you, and especially if they make deliberate eye contact, they need your help and if you want the job, it is yours. In the case of an accident or disaster scene, all bets are off. If you see someone sobbing, go to them immediately, if you can, and make certain they aren’t hurt. Give them any comfort you can and get them to safety if it is in your power. Obviously if there is a possibility of contagions, you would think twice before going near a person in distress. You have to use common sense. If a small child is alone and crying, no matter what the situation, you must go to them and determine if there is a problem.
Some people were abused as children and become terrified if anyone tries to physically comfort them. It is an unfortunate pattern of most abusers to follow their inflictions of pain with exaggerated remorse.
If one of your friends is crying, you will know what to do far better than if they were a stranger. Many of the people we are close to will simply not allow us to see them cry if they don’t need comfort. If they are in visible distress, whether they are turned away or not, they probably need you, even if they can’t admit it.
There is no general rule of thumb regarding sadness and comfort, but one thing is certain- it is important to be sensitive to the situation and to think before you blurt something out. Sometimes, the kindest thing is just leave a person be, to grieve in their own way.