A couple of weeks ago I came across my new favorite coupling of words: “premature consolation”. The context was an interview of poet Gregory Orr by Krista Tippett. Their focus was on the ways that language shapes meaning, especially in trauma and grief. Orr’s background is that when he was only a boy of 12, he shot and killed his brother in a hunting accident. Orr writes in a poem entitled “Gathering the Bones Together”:
I was twelve when I killed him;
I felt my own bones wrench from my body.
Now I am twenty-seven and walk
beside this river, looking for them.
They have become a bridge
that arches toward the other shore.
Orr spoke to Tippett about the well-meaning folks who made comments about how his brother was “with Jesus” or that the tragedy “has a purpose”. For Orr, these comments ran roughshod over his trauma: the loss of his brother, that Orr had caused his brother’s death, the agony of his family, the weight of responsibility that fell on his shoulders, although undeserved.
As one who has sat with many who have experienced trauma and death, I have repeatedly heard these phrases hurled at those who have experienced trauma or those who are grieving.
“When God closes a door, he opens a window.”
These sorts of comments are a maddening denial of emotion and pain; they generally represent the speaker’s wish to move past that pain. They do little for the one who grieves.
Certainly, the experience of trauma does stun our ability to cope. The loss of a loved one can place you in a fog through which it is difficult to see the path forward. But if you find yourself as someone who is attempting to offer comfort to the traumatized and to the bereaved, you must first allow room for the pain.
So when I heard Orr utter the words “premature consolation”, there was a term for what I have observed throughout my years as clergy and clinician.
So what follows are some suggestions for the next time you encounter someone who has faced a difficult loss or trauma.
Be present, not absent.
It is human impulse is to hide from pain, even when it is not our pain but someone else’s. We still feel part of it, or we fear what it will feel like if we were to be the one going through the pain. Our fear makes us hide.
But those who are experiencing pain need our presence.
Some of the old traditions of community such as bringing food, sitting with those who are grieving, these were in place because trauma isolates us. We need others around us. Even if someone sitting next to us does not know what exactly we are experiencing, simply being present is helpful.
Be open, not closed.
Sitting with someone who is grieving or has experienced trauma is not easy. One of the struggles that many of us have in this situation is remaining open to whatever difficult truth this person is sharing.
They may be angry at important people in their life, at loved ones, at God, maybe even at you.
They may be sad, continuing to reflect on what has been taken because of the trauma.
They may not see a reason to continue living because of the space in their life where their loved one resided.
These are times to be open, to listen, not to judge. The one who has lost or who has experienced the trauma needs to be able to share their pain. They may describe the depth and width of that pain … and in that moment, it is important to be open to their voice.
Be a companion, not a guide.
The traumatized or grieving often feel that they have been dislocated to another country. This land has another language, another culture, a landscape that is unfamiliar and distant from home. Trauma and grief are dislocating.
If you wish to be a friend, do not guide or advise.
The crux of “premature consolation” is when you tell someone how to grieve or how to “get over” their traumatic event. While you may have a map of your own path through trauma or grief, this person will have to find their own way.
It is their path, not yours.
Your job in that moment is to sit beside them. You are to be a companion on the journey. You are not their guide.
And yes, there may be truth is those old aphorisms. It is important to look for meaning and purpose in the midst of the tragic. Often those who do best after trauma are those who are able to find purpose as a result of the trauma.
But while what you have to say may be important, it is more important to be present in the midst of the emotion. Even saying the “right” thing can go wrong.
Honor the emotion first by being present … by being open … and by being a companion to them in the suffering.
Then … as they are winding their way toward that “other shore” about which Orr writes, hold their hand and love them along the way.