I just saw the movie, Manchester by the Sea, and witnessed a man named Lee Chandler trapped in grief, guilt and utter hell. Movie-goers who only want to enjoy an uplifting grief recovery story are certainly disappointed. This is a heartbreaking story of being broken by the pain of devastating loss. As depressing as this story may appear to an audience who wants Lee to “get over it,” I found a message of compassion and acceptance for those who can never completely recover.
No matter how disappointed we are in Lee for not living up to our expectations, at least not everyone abandons him, and he can hold on to a few reliable relationships. There is a hero in this movie named George, Lee’s good friend, who is a rock of strength, acceptance and maturity. George is the one who gives me hope in the midst of so much tragedy because he steps up as Lee’s true friend, an older and wiser man he can count on when he cannot even count on himself. The takeaway for me is the importance of a long-lasting, solid friendship, especially when we are called to “wear the big boy pants” when our friend is too broken to cope.
In reaching out to people in times of grief and distress, I aspire to be like George, a good friend to count on. And even though I may not meet high expectations of “being there” the way I’d like to, at least I can check in with my friend on a regular basis, and offer a few things I can realistically provide. It is important for me to be honest about what I can truly deliver, not over-promise, and yet give my friend acceptance and love, even if I can only do or say very little. Empathy, good listening, patience is all I might be able to give, or maybe assisting with an errand or preparing a meal.
What grieving people fear is that they will be abandoned because they are not pulling their own weight to be a “good” friend/parent/uncle/brother/co-worker–afraid of letting people down. They worry that they cannot reciprocate, because the mental and physical exhaustion of grieving drains their energy for returning favors, helping others, or initiating acts of kindness. To comfort people who are too incapacitated by grief, distress or illness requires our patience, maturity, and strength. This is why it is a gift to be comforting for someone in pain. We offer our best comfort by not expecting that person to “get better” or pay us back in any way. Indeed, the Oxford dictionary definition of “to comfort” means to “be strong with” from the Latin, con forte, “with strength.”
But in giving comfort, being “strong with” the one we are serving, we must be clear with ourselves about our intentions and our expectations, as we might not see “improvement” in our loved one’s response to our comforting. We must accept that no matter what we say or do, we can’t make someone feel better. Most of us never completely “get over” our grief, according to the Hospice Foundation of America. In their guidance about grieving, they tell us we can only learn to live with grief, and that grieving is not simply a task that we “get over.”
I keep thinking of George in Manchester by Sea. When I hear people complain about the depressing story and how they are disappointed in Lee, the protagonist, I do my best to remind them about George, though he’s only a “supporting” character. Often the comforters in our own lives are “supporting” characters like George, not in the spotlight, standing by in the background, holding a place for us, a rock for us, a sanctuary for us.
Thankfully, in real life, I have a few comforters like George, reliable, trustworthy friends and colleagues who have given me the gift of comforting. I will never completely get over some losses, but I have wonderful people to count on. I’ve learned from them how to be there for others, and sometimes I’ve been a comfort to my comforters in their own times of need. Comforting comes around and goes around. We take turns restoring each other, each time freely giving our gift– love without strings attached. And when I am down, I try to think of all I’ve been given without strings attached.
Val Walker, MS, is the author of The Art of Comforting: What to Say and Do for People in Distress(Penguin, 2010), and a Nautilus Book Award Gold Medalist in 2011. The Art of Comforting was listed as recommended reading by the Boston Public Health Commission’s Guide for Survivors of the Marathon Bombing. Val’s articles have appeared in Whole Living Magazine, AARP Bulletin, Coping with Cancer Magazine, and other national publications. Formerly a rehabilitation counselor, she now works as an activities specialist leading groups for seniors with Alzheimer’s, and other groups with disabilities. To learn more about Val you can visit her website, Comforting in Action.