A close friend’s mother, who was bedridden for the last two or three years due to a stroke, (and was suffering from multiple health problems) was rushed to the hospital after she had a silent heart attack. When I and a mutual friend went to the hospital to enquire about her welfare, a peep into the ICU was suggestive enough for her fate. Tubes seemed to protrude from different parts of Auntie’s frail body and an oxygen mask nearly covered her pale face. A very active woman in her prime years, she was a fighter by nature, but it was too clear that she was losing her battle for life. To my surprise, I found my friend confident and calm, “Ammi’s doctor says that she will be shifted to a private room in a day or two and go home once she starts taking and retaining oral meals”. Either she didn’t want to share her fears with us or was in a state of denial as the writing was clearly on the wall!
When I called a couple of days later, for the first time I sensed a note of panic in my friend’s voice, “I am feeling scared!” she said in a worried tone. “The doctor just says let’s wait and see in answer to my queries. Ammi has not been shifted from the ICU yet and seems to be slipping into a coma”. As she kept on sharing her fears and concern for her mother with me, unconsciously my mind slipped into the past and I remembered with pain similar times when the tide of my father’s life was ebbing! I was nearly tempted to say, “I know what you must be feeling! I have been through this situation”, but somehow I bit my tongue before the words slipped out and instead tried my best to console my friend.
After hanging up I sat in deep thought trying to admonish myself, “This is the moment my friend needs me to share her concern and fears with, and not mine to go back down memories’ lane and tell her about my painful experience. Her grief is the present, what I have experienced is the past. Such remarks had pained and irritated me in my moments of grief and I shouldn’t make this blunder today when a dear friend is going through a similar situation”.
Auntie passed away peacefully the next day and when my friend’s son called to inform, though I felt sad for her, a sense of relief also engulfed my heart. Thanks goodness that I had held back my words just in time. By lending a sympathetic ear, I had done the best a friend can do in a hopeless situation!
Often when someone close to us wants to share his woes with us, expecting sympathy or a word of advice, we make the blunder of cutting him short and declaring, “I can understand what you are going through because I have been through this!” or worse still “Someone I know or a friend knows has had a similar experience”. We forget that the person in distress is in dire need of a listening ear, and badly wants to pour out his problems with someone he thinks will be helpful and kind. Or better still, in a totally no-win situation, offer a shoulder to cry on. Hardly can we imagine the feelings of the distressed person, who is cut short with a confident, “I know what you must be feeling. I have been through this!”
More than a decade has passed but the painful memories of the last days of my father’s life is still fresh in my mind. A patient of acute Ulcerative Colitis, he was not keeping good health for the past many years. And finally, he was rushed to the hospital after extensive rectal bleeding. Although Daddy’s doctor tried blood transfusions and the required medications, nothing seemed to work for him and within a week, he slipped into a near comatose state. The doctor was sympathetic but practical, “Take your father home and make him as comfortable as possible, because medically nothing more can be done for him.”
I can never forget the sense of deep agony and total helplessness of those days. With hearts heavy as lead, I and my siblings watched the tide of life ebbing from our father, day by day, hour by hour!
Relatives, friends and acquaintances came pouring in to enquire about Daddy’s welfare. But it became very frustrating and annoying because most of them had a story to tell. “So and so had similar symptoms in his/her last days!” “I can feel your pain as I have experienced this traumatic situation. My father/mother/spouse/ child/friend died in such and such manner.”
With a heart nearly bursting with pain, I often felt like blurting out rudely, “No! You can NOT understand what I am going through! This dying man is my beloved Daddy, the iron-man of my life who loved me dearly but ruled over me like a tyrant, who made endless efforts, either by bullying or coaxing, to bring out the best in me. How can you understand my agony? This grief is mine and totally different from what you (or someone you know) have experienced in the past! And at the moment, my pain is too deep for me to care about how so and so died! ”
But every time I felt like saying something as blunt, an inner voice told me to keep quiet. These are all well-wishers, only their mode of sympathy may not suit my state of mind! I tried to convince myself again and again.
The pains of those insensitive remarks linger to the day. The painful experience of Daddy’s last days has taught me an important lesson. There is a time to listen and a time to speak. Only by lending a compassionate ear and a shoulder to cry on, we can help a dear one to cope with his pain. I cannot and do not undermine the importance of kind and consoling words, but only when they are uttered at the correct moment! Often while sharing their woes, our friends just need a hand to hold, a sympathetic ear to listen and a caring heart to understand.