A while ago I posted an article on the concept of "comfort in, dump out." I love the simplicity of that rule, but I have come to recognize a limitation. Or maybe just a need for further refinement.
Before I launch in, I should say that Jeff co-wrote this post. I was struggling to put this concept into words in a more generous than critical way, while still being honest and true to how I feel, to explain and share where I - and no doubt others - are coming from.
So, the issue is with the definition of "comfort." When going through an experience that fundamentally has no upsides (e.g. when your spouse has cancer) it is not comforting to hear about the "bright side" of your situation or "how lucky you are, relatively speaking." This may seem odd or counter-intuitive, especially given that Jeff is often quick to bring up the silver linings in our situation when asked about how things are going, rather than dwelling on the monolithic negative of having cancer.
Don't get me wrong. I am also quick (though less quick than Jeff) to count our blessings. We are still here in SF, surrounded by people we love who have been able to support us in so many ways. We have phenomenally supportive families. We have great health care and other benefits. We live close to UCSF, not in say, Fresno. And, I can be thankful for not living in Fresno for other reasons, on a daily basis.
Still, blessings are something best counted for oneself, rather than to have counted for you by others. And really, I would rather not have to walk this path, blessings or not. It's not at all fun. And, despite what I am sure are the best of intentions, hearing anyone say anything along the lines of "you're so lucky to have a supportive network..." just grates on my nerves.
So, I write to encourage everyone to tread gently and with emotional "attunement" when interacting with anyone who is coping with mega-stress, grief, miscarriages, losses of jobs, the list goes on. For comforters, this means being sensitive to the possibility that what you perceive as "comforting," may not be so for your "comfortee." Being comforted and cheered up are not always the same thing - try to take your cue from the person going through whatever it may be. It may be more comforting just for you to be present than to try and help them feel optimistic, cheerful, or thankful - even if that's obviously what we want for those we care for. For comfortees (in this case, us) it means learning to practice empathy as well - to receive comfort in the spirit in which it is given and with compassion for the giver. It also means sharing our experiences in the hopes that we and others can learn from articulating them.
Katina (with some help from Jeff)