It’s hard to be open with people when you’re going through a crisis, particularly one with many uncertainties. A recent conversation with a friend got me thinking about the vulnerable act of sharing trauma.
My friend is preparing for a painful and risky surgery to remove uterine fibroids. In the best-case scenario, the surgeons will remove the fibroids without internal damage. But the doctors have given her some unfavorable potential outcomes to ruminate on late at night. Removing the fibroids could cause infertility, or the surgeons might decide mid-operation to perform a hysterectomy. They couldn’t talk about tumors without mentioning the “C-word.” One doctor told her that the largest mass might be a rare form of cancer that would likely metastasize if they attempted to remove it.
While she shared with me at a bar as we sat apart from our group, I felt her frustration toward three doctors who’d said different things, each more terrifying than the last. I told her that I understood how stressful it is to live with uncertainty, but mostly I just listened. Eventually, she said, “Well, that was way more than you wanted to know, wasn’t it?”
It wasn’t, though. I was relieved to listen to her. While I fear for my friend’s health and feel her frustration, I was grateful that she trusted me to receive the news. It felt good to have the emotional space to help someone after all the support that I’ve received this year. When I asked how she was doing, neither of us was expecting the depth of the conversation that followed. But she felt comfortable sharing with me.
I assured her that I was happy to listen and could relate to many of her feelings. I told her that I’d had a hard time telling people about my mom’s illness. I had felt ambushed by inquiries into my mom’s health, especially before her lung transplant. I didn’t want to admit that I had gaps in my knowledge and was afraid to learn more. I had felt like a coward. I was reluctant to share the reality of my mother’s illness and my feelings about it because it made me feel vulnerable. I hadn’t been willing to open up unless it was on my terms.
My friend hadn’t spoken about her condition recently because of initial responses to her news. Her friends and family were sad and scared about the uncertainties and surgery risks. She felt responsible for their reactions and obliged to comfort them, even though she was the one who needed consolation.
Her experience resonated with me. When I felt repelled by questions about my mom’s health, it wasn’t merely because I was being put on the spot, but it felt as if the inquirer’s fear and sadness were reflected back to me each time I shared. Every time I confided in someone, I felt responsible for their feelings as well as my own.
I’ve thought myself in circles and still don’t know if there is a way to share trauma without your pain rebounding from your confidante. It’s impossible to avoid an emotional response when a loved one tells you they may have cancer, need a hysterectomy, or have a terminal lung disease. None of us would deliberately project our feelings back at the bearer of bad news, but we still do.
Navigating trauma is an imperfect process. I believe that the best way to respond to someone’s bad news is just to receive it. Empathize with them without letting your emotions rule your response. Remember who is in the ring. If it’s not your fight, don’t burden someone with your feelings. Their pain is enough for them to carry. Be a cheerleader even when you’re hurting, too.
Support can come in many forms. Create space for them to talk even if you can’t fully understand what they’re going through. Listen deeply. Respond thoughtfully. Don’t express the first sad thought that pops into your head. You don’t have to say anything at all. Sometimes, just letting the person tell you how it is and hugging them is enough.
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