You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know

  • Sep 2, 2013
NOTE: I wrote this at Ben’s request for dealing with some tricky situations among his acquaintances and also for my own sake. I’ve received a stream of chastisement and advice from uninformed and deceived relatives. I did a LOT of typing and erasing. I don’t want my friends to worry about me; I am doing well. I feel like I have forgiven, but I am still protecting myself. Christ carries my burden every day. I’m simply living the best life I can and I will let God do His mighty work.

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We live in a society of broken and struggling families, yet most don’t know how to talk to someone who has been through a divorce, abandonment or abuse by a parent and/or estrangement from a family member. While excruciating in their own right, the pain from these experiences is often escalated by well-meaning friends and family.
I shudder to think of things I may have said in the past– I remember hearing of people who couldn’t be in the same room as a family member and judging them harshly. I remember thinking, “Buck up. Grow up.” That was before I spent a year of my life sobbing on the floor in agony. 
If you read nothing else, remember this: extend love; refrain from judgment.
While increasingly common, this sort of pain isn’t universal to human experience. Death, illness, pain– everyone will taste those bitter pills. But when a spouse or a parent who has made sacred promises to love and protect says, “I don’t care if I ever see you again.” the very foundations of your self-worth shake and often crumble.
When families shatter, extended family and friends often try to intercede. Their help can be invaluable, but it can also increase the pain. A guide to help, not harm:
Don’t even talk about taking sides. People often open a conversation with, “I don’t want to take sides.” When a family is destroyed, there isn’t a side to take. Think of it as a traffic accident: when people are broken and bleeding, it doesn’t really matter who ran the traffic light– simply extend a healing hand to all.
You don’t know what you don’t know. Don’t make assumptions. If you listen to the sound bite version of what happened to my family you will know less than nothing. I can count on one hand (with a thumb left over) the people who actually know each detail. Don’t judge, don’t assume. Human relations are complex.
Offer kindness to those who are broken. The very best words to say: “I’m so sorry you are hurting.” This doesn’t imply you are ‘taking sides,’ simply extending love. This action would offer healing in two ways: 1. the person hurting would feel less isolated. 2. the anger toward the person harming them would be alleviated.
I apologize for talking in circles. Let me offer an illustration from my friend’s family: The father had an affair and divorced the mother. All the children were upset with the father and decline to attend his second wedding. The father’s side of the family supported him in his new marriage, attended the celebrations and now include him and his new wife in family gatherings. The father’s relations feel like they are setting an “example” by supporting him and ostracizing his children until they accept the new marriage. This tactic only causes more harm. If extended family members (while still supporting the new marriage) simply put an arm around the hurting children they would 1. help the child feel less alone and 2. ease a portion of the anger toward their father.
Avoid trite phrases. Anyone in the crucible of pain has heard every cliche. Trust me.
Your experience doesn’t translate into mine. When offering advice, we often want to relate problems to our own experiences. Our history, our personalities, unique circumstances, all contribute to the way experiences affect us. What is easy for you, might not be easy for me and vice versa. Strangely (and I don’t understand why) we usually seek to minimize other’s pain. Even my friends who have lost a child say people try to assure them “it’s not that bad.”
Don’t make assumptions about anyone’s spiritual state. Again, you don’t know what you don’t know. Ask questions. Listen. But don’t automatically assume estrangement means a person is full of hate. A person can forgive but also choose not to be around a person who will continue to hurt them. Don’t send articles in the mail, or offer up spiritual or personal advice unless you are intimately acquainted with the circumstances.
Statistics don’t matter. No one’s pain is soothed by “this happens all the time.” People die all the time too. Commonality doesn’t make it easier.
Don’t offer advice or chastisement. A person going through extreme emotional stress has gathered their own advisers and counselors. A random relative or acquaintance who knows nothing of the situation will cause nothing but harm when offering the brusque, “You just need to learn to love.”
Talk about other subjects. Look beyond the wounds to the whole person. Chances are they’d love to tell you about something else than the person who hurt them. Let them heal.

September 1, 2013
September 6, 2013

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12 Comments

  1. Reply

    The Kibler-McCabes

    September 3, 2013

    So incredibly necessary to hear all this.

  2. Reply

    Michelle

    September 3, 2013

    Thanks for your comment, Jen. It’s terrifying to write something this personal.

  3. Reply

    Rachel Weiler

    September 3, 2013

    I’m 21 and still have a lot of experiences to go through, but have seen the hurt caused by shattered families in people close to me. I did my best to listen and hug and sometimes just cry. The way you’ve put all of this beautiful, direct, and informative. Thank you.

    I also feel like this advice is applicable for families who are still intact. I hope to apply what I’ve learned here more in the relationships I have and love.

    And a question. How do you feel about me sharing this? Maybe on Pinterest? Slash do you have an image or button I could use for it? I don’t mean to push or invade, I just feel like so many people could do with reading this.

    Thanks again.

  4. Reply

    Michelle

    September 3, 2013

    Hi Rachel– I’m glad you find some value here. I made an image and changed the title for a wider audience. I think you are right– all families need to remember to refrain from judgment and offer love.

  5. Reply

    Kerri

    September 3, 2013

    Michelle, I think this is a beautiful and necessary post. I have not had the same experience as you, of coursem but I have suffered through a family estrangement that has lasted for years. It is terribly painful, terribly sad, and terribly lonely, because an estrangement doesn’t seem to have the same kind of justification for immense pain as you do in a divorce or death.

    And yes, people just don’t know how to handle it. Those who have been most helpful to me have just loved us both without much discussion, but when I have been most hurt, have allowed me to express myself without trying to fix me or the situation. Shoving it under the rug is NOT helpful, but someone saying “I think you’re doing a remarkable job of handling things in a hard circumstance” is very helpful.

    Thank you for discussing this hard topic and opening up your heart, Thank you for all the beauty you share with us.

  6. Reply

    Kerri

    September 3, 2013

    And dang, maybe I should only comment while at a computer. Way too many typos otherwise. πŸ™‚

  7. Reply

    Linn

    September 4, 2013

    This is wonderful Michelle. Thanks for writing it. I’m sorry about the hurt you’ve had to go through, but appreciate you sharing what you have learned through it all. xoxo

  8. Reply

    Kit Linkous

    September 5, 2013

    These are all such important points to think about and try harder to do better at. Thanks for teaching me so much. Always. Love you

  9. Reply

    Claudia

    September 5, 2013

    Can I re-write everything you wrote in bold and print it on a t-shirt that I can walk around in day and night? You are ever so wise my dear friend and I love you for who you are. Thank you!

  10. Reply

    Crystal Critchfield

    September 6, 2013

    So beautifully written, as usual. I just love you! So sorry for your pain. Thanks for your great example. Hugs!

  11. Reply

    Tracy

    September 6, 2013

    I love you..and wish I could hug you right now. xoxoxo

  12. Reply

    Sharlee Ritz

    September 6, 2013

    I really loved this. This is a great one to re-post, share, tweet, ect…so incredibly necessary for life. Thank you for being real.

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