Facing something like a miscarriage or divorce is intensely painful, but even more so when we don’t get the support and care we need.
Five years ago Sarah’s* husband bled to death in front of her eyes while 40 doctors tried to save him. Her children were 3 and 5 years old at the time, and this sudden and traumatic life event turned their world upside down.
What made it even worse was that Sarah received no support from her husband’s family and very minimal support from her friends.
While her in-laws were unable to comprehend Sarah’s grief and struggles, Sarah’s friends appeared to keep their distance out of fear.
Many women would leave a meal on her porch, dash to their car, and drive away as quickly as possible. Barely anybody came into her home and actually spent time with her and her young children. She mostly grieved alone.
Georgia* lost her job right before Thanksgiving of 2019. A single mom with deceased parents, she had no one to truly comfort her.
While her friends were verbally supportive, no one offered to help with child care, send her job leads, or give any financial support.
As the sole provider and caregiver for her 5-year-old daughter, Georgia didn’t “have the flexibility to wallow.” Through the sadness, financial stress, and fear, Georgia has cooked meals, taken her daughter to school, and cared for her — all on her own.
Yet when Beth Bridges lost her husband of 17 years from a sudden, massive heart attack, friends immediately reached out to show their support. They were attentive and caring, bringing her food, taking her out for meals or to talk, making sure she exercised, and even fixing her sprinklers or any other items that needed repair.
They allowed her to grieve and cry in public — but they didn’t allow her to sit in her home alone isolated with her feelings.
What was the reason that Bridges received more compassion? Could it be because Bridges was at a very different stage in her life than Sarah and Georgia?
Bridges’ social circle contained friends and colleagues who had more life experience, and many had received her help during their own traumatic experiences.
However, Sarah and Georgia, who experienced trauma while their children were in preschool, had a social circle full of younger friends, many who had not yet experienced a trauma.
Was it simply too hard for their less-experienced friends to understand their struggles and know what type of support they needed? Or were Sarah and Georgia’s friends unable to dedicate the time to their friends because their young children demanded the majority of their time and attention?
Where is the disconnect that left them on their own?
“Trauma is going to come to all of us,” said Dr. James S. Gordon, founder and executive director of The Center for Mind-Body Medicine and author of the book “The Transformation: Discovering Wholeness and Healing After Trauma.”
“It’s fundamental to understand that it is a part of life, it is not apart from life,” he said. “It’s not something strange. It’s not something pathological. It’s just a painful part of everyone’s life sooner or later.”
According to experts, it’s a combination of stigma, lack of understanding, and fear.
The stigma piece may be the easiest to understand.
There are certain situations — such as a child with an addiction disorder, a divorce, or even a job loss — where others may believe that the person somehow caused the problem themselves. When we believe that it’s their fault, we’re less likely to offer our support.
“While stigma is a piece of why someone may not receive compassion, sometimes it’s also a lack of awareness,” explained Dr. Maggie Tipton, PsyD, the clinical supervisor of trauma services at Caron Treatment Centers.
“People may not know how to have a conversation with someone experiencing trauma or how to offer support. It may look like there’s not as much compassion when the reality is that they don’t know what to do,” she said. “They don’t intend to be compassionless, but the uncertainty and lack of education leads to less awareness and understanding, and therefore people don’t reach out to support the person experiencing trauma.”
And then there’s the fear.
As a young widow in a small, posh suburb of Manhattan, Sarah believes that the other mothers in her children’s preschool kept their distance because of what she represented.
“Unfortunately, there were only three women who showed any compassion,” Sarah recalled. “The rest of the women in my community stayed away because I was their worst nightmare. I was a reminder to all of these young moms that their husbands could drop dead at any time.”
These fears and reminders of what could happen are why many parents often experience a lack of compassion when experiencing a miscarriage or loss of a child.
Although only around 10 percent of known pregnancies end in miscarriage, and the death rate of children has fallen dramatically since the 1980s, being reminded that this could happen to them makes others shy away from their struggling friend.
Others may fear that because they’re pregnant or their child is alive, showing support will remind their friend of what they’ve lost.
“Compassion is crucial,” said Dr. Gordon. “Receiving some kind of compassion, some kind of understanding, even if it’s just people being present with you, is really the bridge back to a major part of physiological and psychological balance.”
“Anyone who works with traumatized people understands the crucial importance of what social psychologists call social support,” he added.
According to Dr. Tipton, those who don’t receive the compassion they need typically feel lonely. Struggling through a stressful time often causes people to retreat, and when they don’t receive support, it reinforces their desire to withdraw.
“It’s devastating for a person if they don’t get the level of compassion they need,” she explained. “They’ll start to feel more lonely, depressed, and isolated. And, they’ll begin to ruminate on their negative thoughts about themselves and the situation, most of which aren’t true.”
So if we know a friend or family member is struggling, why is it so hard to support them?
Dr. Gordon explained that while some people respond with empathy, others respond by distancing themselves because their emotions overcome them, leaving them incapable of responding and helping the person in need.
“It’s important to understand how we respond to other people,” Dr. Gordon advised. “As we listen to the other person, we first have to tune in to what’s actually going on with ourselves. We need to notice what feelings it brings up in us and be aware of our own response. Then, we should relax and turn to the traumatized person.”
“When you focus on them and the nature of their problem, you’ll figure out how you can be helpful. Often, just being with the other person can be enough,” he said.
Here are 10 ways to show compassion:
- Admit you’ve never had the experience before and you can’t imagine what it must be like for them. Ask them what they need now, then do it.
- If you’ve had a similar experience, remember to keep the focus on this person and their needs. Say something like: “I’m so sorry you’re having to go through this. We’ve been through it as well, and if you’d like to talk about it at some point, I’d be happy to. But, what do you need right now?”
- Don’t tell them to call you if they need anything. That’s awkward and uncomfortable for the traumatized person. Instead, tell them what you want to do and ask which day is best.
- Offer to watch their kids, transport their kids to or from an activity, go grocery shopping, etc.
- Be present and do ordinary things like taking a walk together or seeing a movie.
- Relax and tune in to what’s going on. Respond, ask questions, and acknowledge the strangeness or sadness of their situation.
- Invite them to join you or your family on a weekend outing so they’re not lonely.
- Put a reminder in your calendar to call or text the person weekly.
- Resist the temptation to try and fix them. Be there for them just as they are.
- If you believe they need counseling or a support group, help them find one where they can make discoveries about themselves, learn self-care techniques, and move forward.
*Names changed to protect privacy.
Gia Miller is a freelance journalist, writer, and storyteller who mainly covers health, mental health, and parenting. She hopes her work inspires meaningful conversations and helps others better understand various health and mental health issues. You can view a selection of her work here.