I know a woman who, a few years ago, suffered a miscarriage about halfway through her pregnancy. A week or so after the event, she telephoned me in tears, sobbing so hard it took five full minutes to calm her down. It wasn't just the miscarriage, she said, but the terrible things people were saying to her when they found out. One friend met her for lunch at some trendy downtown restaurant and after going on and on about her latest boyfriend had finally noticed the stricken look upon the grieving woman's face. "You're not still upset about it, are you?" the friend had asked. "I mean, there was probably something wrong with it, anyway."
I've been remembering that phone call recently because here we are again as the Clinton Comedy of Error rolls on; another week in which to wonder, "What the hell did he/she mean by that? Did she mean what she said or something else? Does it matter? Is it intention that counts or the effect that registers? Shall we be judged by what's in our heart of hearts, or what comes sluicing from our mouths?"
Even as she sobbed into the telephone, my friend rose to her friend's defense. "I knew she meant well." she said. "She didn't intend to hurt me."
"I'm sure she didn't." I said. But, in fact, what I thought was: "Screw that." Some of the things people said to me when news of my divorce emerged were so insensitive as to be laughable. Now, anyway.
My neighbor: "Wow! I didn't even know you guys were having trouble!"
My child's teacher: "Did you even think of counseling?" And, "Have you thought about what this means for the kids?"
A friend: "Wow, that's the third one I've heard of this month! It's like a disease around here. I hope it's not contagious!"
The proper responses to these statements, unavailable to me at the time because of a more pressing need to focus all my emotional energy on not dissolving into a puddle and trickling away, are as follows:
To my neighbor: "Didn't you get the newsletter?"
To my child's teacher: "Nah. I saw those socks on the floor and thought: to heck with this!" And, "Kids? Do we have kids?"
To a friend: "Me too. Because then you'd be a rude, insensitive jerk and divorced. Bad combination all around."
I believe that deep down most people are well-intentioned. I believe in giving the benefit of the doubt, in turning the other cheek. I believe the Hillary supporters foaming at the mouth when they say their candidate was not wishing aloud for the most horrible of possibilities or even suggesting that it might occur.
I also believe that when you say something terrible, something that wounds a person, even unintentionally, you apologize. No ifs, ands or buts, no wobbling, no non-apology apologies; No "Well-I-was-just-being-honest" bullshit. My kids learned that in preschool, but I know far too many adults who can't seem to get it through their heads.
People want to help. They want to comfort and soothe; they want to be useful. But most of all they do not want to sit in the same room as pain. Sitting next to pain is painful. Sitting next to pain brings up all those uncomfortable feelings of helplessness and bewilderment and dissatisfaction in our own lives. Sitting next to pain reminds us that no one gets out unscathed.
Who the heck wants to be reminded of that? Isn't it better to just say something and make it all go away? But of course we can't. Since the miscarriage incident, I have tried, when confronted with pain both small and overwhelming, to speak just three sentences. I try to say them over and over, varying the tone and timber of my voice, but never the message. I try mightily to refrain from analyzing the situation or suggesting the person is better off or that the pain is part of God's master plan. I especially, especially, especially try to refrain from giving advice.
Instead, I say this and only this: That sucks. I'm sorry. What can I do to help?
That's it. That's the only thing I try to say. Broken heart or lost baby. Separation or divorce. Home lost to hurricane or flood. Fender bender. Job termination. Death of a parent you have not seen in 20 years.
That sucks. I am so, so sorry. What can I do?
And that, my friends, is saying a lot.
Kim McLarin is a regular contributor to The Root.