“All human life has its seasons, and no one’s personal chaos can be permanent: winter, after all does not last forever does it? There is summer, too, and spring, and though sometimes when branches stay dark and the earth cracks with ice, one thinks they will never come, that spring, that summer, but they do, and always."
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I Know How You Feel
Edited by Founder, Connie Saindon, MFT
While sitting in the lounge waiting for my car to be serviced I started chatting with a teacher who said she worked with immigrants from Africa. She said she was touched by the lives they lived before coming to our country. She felt deeply their struggles of living here and living with past events that drove them to find refuge in another world. She mentioned many had witnessed the murder of their loved ones. I told her about our work in building a resource nationally for Survivors of Violent Loss.
She then asked with great sincerity: "Why is it so bad to say to someone: I know how you feel?"
Of course I answered her and then sent an email query to some survivors to give them an opportunity to reply.
Here are some of their remarks: (It is SVLP policy to not publish Survivors names unless specifically requested to include them).
Dear Connie, The attempt to empathize is futile. There simply is no way you Really Can Know. You have no basis for this emotion until it has been felt through a loss of your own. To say "you know how I feel" makes it seem like an attempt to minimize the pain I am feeling, which is impossible. There is no bottom to the depth of the pain I feel. The words make my heart hurt a little more. Just let it be. It cannot be blanketed so easily. It is best just to sympathize, best to regret that this has happened. Best to simply hold me and let me weep. Dee Dee Bridgens
Terry Lee Sims, age 20, murdered 12/21/84
Dear Connie, Here are a few thoughts:
What is conveyed in a word or sentence depends on how deep you want to connect. To me, by saying to someone "I know how you feel" invades a sacred place within the victim. I hear the words, but don't trust it until I hear more and that isn't always possible. I imagine what someone wants to do is hold and comfort the person by letting them know they are not alone.
I think, for me this is done by words such as, "I'm so sorry." or, "Yes, my loses have been difficult, but I can not imagine what you must have gone through, or continue to go through." It is about the victim and not us at that point. And really, witnessing the murders of family members and having to leave your home, town/village, and country I would imagine challenges your identity--who you are now and where do I fit. So much more to consider.
Dear Connie, To those who say "I know just how you feel" - I pray to all the Gods there are that you DON'T know just how I feel.
This statement is often followed by another statement, "My (sister/husband/whatever) died a few (weeks/months) ago." And if I inquire further, it was usually a slower death, of some illness or other, and by the time the person finally died, it was a blessing to all concerned. There was no surprise. If someone dies an expected death, the estate is settled before the death, the heirlooms are predealt. There's a good start on the mourning. A natural death is nice and clean, and is part of the natural order.
The trouble with sudden death, especially murder, is that it isn't nice and clean - no matter how good and organized your life was before that, hold on. Suddenly, the cops are questioning your neighbors about your possible collusion in the death, there's worry about trouble-maker strangers (media and otherwise) showing up at the funeral, there's being dragged through years of trials, (or worse, never seeing justice trying to get done), there's being hounded by the press... There's a bumper crop of shock, anger, guilt, loss, pressure, and confusion, not to mention full-blown depression. You find mourning particularly hard. You find that you have to be polite to defense attorneys (a particularly low form of life), and your best friends get it with both barrels sometimes. It isn't natural, and it goes on and on.
People, whose loved ones are murdered, killed in car wrecks, fires, etc. - we're blazing our own trails through the human psyche and writing our own books. Sudden death isn't new, but it's never been openly discussed from our point of view. We hardly know from one day to the next how we feel.
Don't tell me that you know 'just how I feel', just because your Mother was lucky enough to die at her third heart attack. For starts, you don't know how much I envy you...
Dear Connie, Thanks for your request for our comments. I really believe people "mean well" when they say they know how we feel, but they really can't know unless they have experienced a traumatic loss. We know of someone who said this and commented the reason they knew how the loss felt was because they had lost a pet dog! I think people who want to help do best when they just sit quietly with us as we cry and/or talk about our loved one. Words are not necessary or comforting - just the presence of one who "feels" with us, who allows us to express the pain, the sorrow, the anger without judging us.
"Our son was murdered in 1990 and his body has not been found and we did not know for almost 9 nine years what happened to him. We "knew" something terrible had happened to him, but until one of the two killers confessed, we were living a paradox - hoping Tim might be alive somewhere and at the same time trying to accept the reality that he was dead."
P. P. M.
Dear Connie, I continue to be amazed by the replies of people and question what motivates them to want to ask a question like that. So many beliefs are changing for me, sometimes daily. I wonder if anyone can really know, "How" a person feels when in the midst of loss, even for those who have experienced a similar event. Perhaps that is the clue, similar. Yet when you come down to it - one just can NEVER KNOW. I believe that is a very personal relationship belonging to the person experiencing it and needs to be honored, held, comforted and cared for like a newborn with love. Without being intrusive or demanding of it to be anything other than what it is - beginning and growing, tender and vulnerable.
Dear Connie, My reaction to your question is this.
"How could YOU know, when I don't even know. It has been two and half years and I am still trying to figure it out. There were no legal proceedings in my case. There was no clear determination for us about whether this was a vehicular homicide, if my fiance was involved some how, or a mutual fight that got totally out of hand? My thoughts and feelings play out all the time and once I THINK I Have it something new comes up. An innocent comment by my friend who is having marital troubles was talking to me. She said "If my husband were thinking about me, why would he have done what he did? Since he did what he did, then he must not care about me. I feel so betrayed." I felt bad for her at the time. Her comments got me thinking about my fiancé and made me wonder if he really cared about me? Was he thinking about me when he decided to go and party so much that night? My friend feels betrayed by her husband. Her husband didn't get insanely drunk and die for no good reason. How's that for a betrayal?"
This is just a small example, of what happens to me when someone says: "I know how you feel!"
No you don't know how I feel. If they said "I can't imagine how you must feel.", that might be ok. But then I feel isolated even more because I feel like no one understands me.
Dear Connie, When somebody says, "I know how you feel," the words represent one more deception in a world already fearful and rotten with them. When I experienced Dad's murder, the world abruptly became a terrifying place, full of half- truths, misrepresentations, and outright lies. My existence was rent* by a yawning chasm. One side, the side with me on it, was crawling with demons and other fearsome slithery things with sharp claws. I felt those things were always lying in wait, ready to do me harm, maybe kill ME as well.
On the other side, the side I thought I'd never get back to was the halcyon land of ordinary, daily life. Only another survivor could understand this terrible isolation, lived in full sight of a lively, lost world indifferent to one's suffering.
Whenever someone would say, "I know how you feel," I immediately felt contempt, distrust, weariness. Resentment.
I would think, "Who is this barking fool who speaks complacently at me from the safety of his or her "normal" world? How dare they! "People like this unwittingly stirred up already roiled feelings of distrust and rage. Ignorant clods.
Only a very few really, truly know how one feels after the murder of a loved one. They are survivors of violent loss. All others need not apply. You could not POSSIBLY know how I feel, and you'd best pray you never will.
Definition: Rent; to remove from place by violence," to split or tear apart or in pieces by violence. To lacerate with painful feelings," "very violent or ruthless severing or sundering.
This article is fairly lengthy and necessarily so. It is still a brief composite of such a complicated subject. I do hope though that this will help survivors tell others why it usually isn't of any help to utter that phrase. I like what one of our survivors says, and I hope you never do know what if feels like.
Please let us hear from you about this topic as well. We welcome all reactions and will consider them for submission as time and space allow. Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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