I read something the other day that I couldn’t stop thinking about. I was just starting my shift at work, and for the first hour I struggled to get my mind off what was merely someone’s opinion on a particular subject:
I hate it when people say “I know how you feel.”
For some reason, the words hit me like a ton of bricks. It was the first two words that I ‘felt’ first, and it didn’t feel good. I find hate to be a very strong word. I then thought about the sentence in its entirety and the message it was conveying, and it saddened me.
I had the urge to sit down with the author of the sentence and ask them all the things that were suddenly racing through my mind. I wanted to talk about it, to delve in and really look at what it was they were saying. I couldn’t help but wonder if they might write that sentence differently after considering different perspectives or allowing themselves to open up to other possibilities. To me, the word hate seemed completely out of place. Do you really feel hate or do you think, after a moment of honesty, you would choose another word? And why do you hate it when people say that? Why don’t you love it? Does it offend you that someone would go so far as to suggest that they know how you’re feeling? Do you feel you need to exclude others, for a time, to process your situation in your own unique way? Do you simply need time, without someone trying to change the moment or lessen it?
It’s funny how a simple sentence could cause me to react so dramatically and how it could conjure up so many questions. It’s also funny how I was asking myself those very same questions just a few days later.
Not long after reading that sentence, I travelled to my old home town for the weekend. One of the things I had planned to do was visit a friend’s grave, something I hadn’t done since he died in 1987 in a diving accident. He was 20 years old that year, the same age as I was. We had developed a friendship through working together. As I drove to buy a red rose to place on his gravestone, I thought back to the day I heard the news. I had just recently moved away, but had returned for a few days. Upon arriving, a friend of mine informed me of what had happened, but I could not – would not – believe it. I had to find out if it was true, and immediately walked in to the place my friend and I used to work to find someone I knew, an old co-worker, someone whose facial expression would tell all. But the first person I saw was not a person that knew my friend and I well, it was someone who had been newly hired at the time I left. When she saw me, she looked sad and started to say how sorry she was and that she knew how I felt. All I could think of at the time was you have no idea how I feel. I resented her.
As my past and present collided, I realized what I did that day. I brushed that girl off; hated her for inferring she knew how I felt. I didn’t allow her to comfort me in any way whatsoever and, as I held tight to my pain, I prevented any exchange that may have happened between us. There we were, two people who were both saddened by the news that day, and yet I was so blinded by my own pain to even notice hers.
As I turned the tables and asked myself the questions that came up that day at work, I realized I did feel intense emotion when someone tried to tell me they knew how I felt. Would I choose another word than hate if I truly thought about it? Yes, but just like the ‘f’ word, sometimes there’s only one word to accurately describe what we’re feeling. For me that particular day, it was probably more like anger. Why didn’t I love that girl’s attempt to console? I don’t think I’d experienced enough at that point; I didn’t know any other way. I think I was too young to understand that letting people in and opening up to love instead of closing off completely would’ve helped me feel less alone in my grief. And yes, her suggestion that she knew what I was going through was somehow offensive to me. Again, I just didn’t have the capacity to understand that other people can and do understand another person’s suffering in their own way. Did I need time, and did I feel the need to exclude others while I processed the situation? Absolutely. I think that was the biggest thing for me as I look back at it all. It was all happening too fast for me to fathom what had happened; too soon to be able to let people in.
What’s interesting to me is how the current-day chain of events unfolded and how they guided me to an important memory. Why did that particular sentence catch my eye that day? And why did I decide, after almost 30 years, to visit an old friend’s grave? I have thought of him often over the years, but have never gone. This time, I felt compelled. And how is it my mind wandered to the events of that day just far enough for me to ‘get it’? My trip down memory lane ended when I saw the newly hired girl; it was all I needed. For this life lesson, ‘things happen for a reason’ could not ring more true.
In reading that sentence before work a few days ago, it saddened me that the person’s pain was perhaps blinding them and preventing them from accepting a version of love that was being offered. I felt that as long as the word hate remained, it would forever be a barrier to love, learning and personal growth. But now I understand, after life chose to tap me on the shoulder and remind me of a time that pain had blinded me, where that person was coming from. A young girl cared that I was hurting 30 years ago. She was trying to let me know that, in her own way, she understood a glimmer of what I was going through. A glimmer. And I couldn’t give her that? Had I been receptive, our pain could’ve brought us together. Instead, I alienated her, and to this day, I’m sorry for that.
Thankfully, my view on all of this has changed over time. I can see beyond another person’s choice of words and simply feel their love and comfort. Because we’re human. We may not always get it right, especially when it comes to other people’s grief. We can’t possibly know the true depth of someone else’s pain but at the very least, we share a knowledge of what loss feels like. As humans, we go through similar experiences in a lifetime – the loss of loved ones, pets, all the highs and lows that become part of our journey. Each of us will experience these things in our own way, but we’re all traveling a similar road. It’s called life.
It took almost 30 years, a random sentence and an impromptu visit to an old friend’s grave to make me realize what I did that day and to show me how far I’ve come. Would I react differently today? YES. And I’m grateful for the experiences that have made it possible for me to say that. I can only hope the person who wrote the sentence that I read that day will eventually be able to say the same, and perhaps even re-write it:
I love it when people say “I know how you feel.”
Now that feels good.
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