I’m the self-proclaimed queen of knowing what to say to people. This is largely thanks to the six years I spent struggling with infertility, during which time I was angry and unhappy with almost everything everyone said to me. (Yep, I was a barrel of laughs, just like it sounds.) There were so many times I wanted to jump and scream and tell people what to stop saying to me — and what they should be saying instead. Eventually, my husband and I did get our happy ending and, since then, my pissed off energy has dissolved; now everything I have is focused on caring for my twin babies. But even though that chapter is over, it will never leave me, and the result is I’m SUPER sensitive when dealing with other peoples’ feelings. I wear this like a badge of honor.
But recently I’ve been finding myself tongue-tied when friends tell me they’re getting separated or divorced. “I’m so sorry” is what automatically comes out. Because it’s true. I am so sorry as I imagine what it feels like to rip apart something you’ve spent years building, and let go of a dream you thought would play out one way but is halting to a different ending. (And looking back on my fertility journey, I know that I always appreciated an acknowledgment of my loss and grief.) If I’m close with the person, I delve a little deeper, and I offer to help in any way I can, and I mean it.
One morning not long ago, I ran into a friend I hadn’t seen in a while. I asked how her husband was and she told me they were divorcing. (I flashed to that scene in When Harry Met Sally when Harry asks Sally how her boyfriend Joe is and she replies “Fine. I hear he’s fine….” as her way of breaking the news they’d broken up.)
“I’m so sorry,” I said — in the way that I do — and gave her a warm hug. My friend thanked me, but on her face I also saw a look I recognized; I remembered wearing this expression hundreds of times myself. Suddenly I felt like I’d said the wrong thing. I flat out asked her if “I’m sorry” maybe isn’t the best thing to say to someone splitting from their spouse.
She was honest with me and admitted that she doesn’t love hearing sighs of condolence; she said that other peoples’ sadness just makes it harder for her to deal with her own feelings. This made complete sense to me and it was something I hadn’t considered it until she explained it. I myself am the product of a happy divorce, and by that, I don’t mean my parents were happy to divorce, rather that in hindsight, I can’t imagine my parents having been married at all. Ultimately, they both went on to completely different life paths that they wouldn’t have taken if they’d stayed together. Their divorce most definitely shaped who I am — for the better — and in my mind, I celebrate that they were married, had me, and were smart enough to make a good decision to move on. So maybe my friend was saying that I should celebrate more when people tell me they’re splitting? But not exactly.
I asked my friend what she considers the perfect thing to say. And let me add that there is never a perfect thing to say, because much like with infertility and miscarriage, no two stories are the same and each and every person’s feelings are different. But I do always strive to find the “most good” thing to say — the most empathetic and sincere. My friend considered my question, then said: “Thank you so much for sharing that with me.” That’s what she believes is the best thing to say. And I get it. Sharing the messy stuff with people is hard. It really is, because you’re opening yourself to judgment, to hard feelings, to soft feelings, and all the junk we have a hard time talking about. So thanking someone for sharing that junk with you is as simple and honest as it gets.
So, in the end, I don’t know that I need to go and dethrone myself as the queen of knowing what to say. That seems a little dramatic. But I will ALSO throne myself as the queen of WANTING to know the right thing to say. Because this is the only way we’re actually going to be there for each other. We need to acknowledge each other’s hurt and grief, show up for one another, call it as it is, and let people know what “most good” thing our hearts are needing to hear.