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Standing With a Suffering Friend
Your stories about how to be present for a problem you can't solve
Back before my new baby and my post-partum break, we had a discussion sparked by an article on parenting, on how to support others when you can’t solve their problem for them. On that topic, I don’t have any special knowledge about how to best help Ukraine, but I have a lot of confidence in Kelsey Piper’s research generally. Here’s her list of recommended places to donate. HIAS is my go to for donations to support refugees. The Dominican friars and sisters are active in Ukraine and sheltering people in their basements.
The discussion began with children, who need space to struggle so they can learn, but also need to know they are loved and that parents are there for serious help. I got a kick out of the phrase Tsh Oxenrider contributed to the discussion:
I'm now in the stage of parenting teens, which means SO MUCH of my job involves simply being present and modeling my own life as they navigate theirs. Over the weekend I had coffee with a friend and she called it "house plant parenting" — the stage in which your presence is known and you're there to clear the air, but otherwise you don't reach in and interfere when they're about to bonk their head on the ground, metaphorically-speaking.
My girls are 2yo and 1mo, so I don’t know from parenting teens, but I’m hoping it can be a time of shared exploration and struggle. I can’t fully enter into my toddler and baby’s troubles, because I’m pretty good at things that are difficult for them e.g. supporting the weight of my own head and being offered the wrong number of crackers.
But with older kids, I hope to struggle alongside them more. I’m a poor artist, and I’d like to do some lessons from Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain with our girls when they are bigger. That’s when my husband will hypothetically teach us all Greek, too.
Magdalen offered a way to find hope even when the situation isn’t getting better:
I think it's often possible to offer hope or encouragement while knowing that I can't offer some sort of solution. I sometimes try to say things along the lines of "I know your loved one is struggling, and it's really hard for you, and it's not getting better anytime soon. But one thing I do see is how much love and care you have for them, and I think that's wonderful about you" or "I see that you're struggling with X, and I think it really boils down to the fact that you made choice Y. You stand by that choice even when it's really difficult, and I think that's great about you." It's definitely not applicable to all people or all situations, but I find it allows me to reach for hope in a genuine way when a problem isn't getting better anytime soon.
I really liked her emphasis on what someone’s response to a hard situation revealed about them, even if it didn’t make it go away. It’s also a way that knowing someone in hard times can be a way of growing in love for a friend, since you know them more deeply, even if you wouldn’t have sought out this knowledge.
It does remind me of the relationship between husband and wife during labor. We found the Bradley approach helpful, which emphasizes the laboring woman’s partner as the first line of support. It made a huge difference for me.
The Bradley approach is a lot of work for the husband—he’s both learning a lot about labor (approaching some of the work and expertise of a doula), and he’s also entering deeply into the suffering of someone he loves, unable to lift the weight entirely from her. Often, that means recognizing that doing a good job with a hard physical challenge doesn’t look like what we want a good job to look like.
Haley Stewart talked about offering comfort to her children and receiving it from friends:
I think that offering solace, not problem solving was a hard lesson for me to learn in early motherhood—partly because I was traumatized by the experience of trying to comfort an incredibly colickly newborn who could not be consoled for the first several months of his life. I so desperately wanted to solve his discomfort and that experience stayed with me! But I think I've gotten better over time at waiting out the meltdowns rather than trying to "solve" them because especially with toddlers, once feelings take over they have a hard time problem solving anyway and just want to cry and be hugged or snuggle for awhile. As a friend, I actually like help with problem solving alongside comfort. I have a friend who is very thoughtful about sending care packages or Venmo-ing funds for DoorDash if I'm having a hard time. She also will ask, "would you like to vent or would it be helpful if I helped problem solve?" when I go to her in a crisis which is also so appreciated!
This sent me searching for a post of hers that I remembered and that helped shape my approach to pregnancy and post-partum recovery.
Haley has experienced hyperemesis gravidarum (extreme, debilitating pregnancy nausea), and she wrote about how this limited how much she could do for her children, and how dependent on them she became.
I worry every pregnancy that by being out of commission for a few months, I will be depriving my children. But especially as my kids grow older, I see that their sibling is an unbelievable gift even in utero. I see my children grow in kindness and empathy. My willful 4yo has matured so much in the past few weeks. I see the wheels turning in her mind when my prone-to-tantruming strong-willed girl says, “Okay, mom. I’ll obey. Because I’m being a good big sister.” My 6yo draws family portraits featuring the baby and whispers sweet nothings to my belly. My 9yo has practiced preparing meals, running the dishwasher, and loading laundry. He now LOOKS for things to clean up and do to be helpful, because he knows I need help. They have the opportunity to practice loving even when it’s hard in loving two helpless people through this season, me and the baby, one of whom they’ve never even met!
None of this obliges us to be happy to suffer or to wish for more suffering than we have. But there is a real good in sharing our weakness with others, even when it can’t be fixed. And that gift can come even in sharing small weaknesses.
Finally, here’s a ballad about vigil-keeping that I love from Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812.