The Unknowability of Other People’s Pain

The Unknowability of Other People’s Pain


Two different families in the same small town experienced tragic and shocking deaths by suicide of a family member they dearly loved, within a short time from one another. Both deaths made headlines in the local papers, causing their families to suffer more pain beyond the losses due to the salacious nature of the stories the papers printed. The news accounts were highly unflattering and contained speculation and innuendo that compounded the families’ overwhelming grief.

It was a privledge to be invited into the families’ homes following the deaths to provide support to them and lead memorial services for their loved ones. In such sacred and intimate moments in families’ lives, they desperately needed comfort and reassurance to know that the incredible darkness which had descended upon them need not be the final word on the lives just ended or on the rest of their lives.

The profound pain the families felt was exacerbated by the multiple, acrimonious reports about their loved ones’ lives and deaths that went on for months and years after the deaths occured.  

Both families were devastated — understandably — humiliated, and beaten down by the accounts. As we listened to them, we witnessed their anguish, heard their cries, and felt the debilitating power of their pain. Yet, we could neither fully know nor understand how awful it was to lose the person they love, and then to see their deaths played out in such a public and injurious manner.   

So, we wrote to the publisher of the paper that printed the harshest of the articles, asking them to consider the effects of their reporting on those grieving so personally the tragic losses. We certainly understood the paper’s responsibility to report facts and legitimate news. We simply wanted to urge some sensitivity about those who remained in life after those who were gone; to be aware of the unintended consequences of the spurious tones of the articles as they were being written. We were simply looking for a balance between the right to know and the effects of unfounded speculation on the survivors of the losses. It was our responsibility to call attention to the depths of the families’ despair. 

The publisher’s response was swift … and cynical, 

Why don’t you ask our readers what they want us to report?

So, we wondered, it doesn’t matter how innocent people feel when their tragedies are splashed throughout the news? We can’t even consider how someone else might feel or how our actions might hurt them? Can’t we at least try to convey some sort of sensitivity to those whose lives have taken impossibly hard and unimaginable turns?

Maura Kelly wrote an article – The Unknowability of Other People’s Pain – in the New York Times this past week, illuminating how impossible it is to fully or maybe even remotely understand what another person is feeling or living with every day.  She highlighted the intimate connection between emotional pain and the intense physical reactions our bodies can have when we are grieving what has been lost or even grieving what has never been had.   

Currently writing a memoir about her father’s suicide and the persistent and perniscious digestive strain he developed in the three decades before his death, Ms. Kelly lays out the traumatic experiences of her father’s life: growing up in poverty in Ireland, uneducated, with two parents living with mental illness, abuse by a sadistic priest, the sudden death of his eight year-old younger brother on Christmas Day, losing his wife to cancer when Maura was eight years old, struggling to raise her alone and often falling short. He was up against so much. Eventually, it took its awful toll.   

She writes,

While my father was alive, it was impossible for me to imagine his agony.

What we hear so often through our listening work – and feel a responsibility to bear witness to because of what we know – is the fundamental fact that none of us can fully, completely, perfectly know, feel, or understand what another person is experiencing and living with. For all the commonalities inherent in our human experiences, including grief, loss, disappointment, pain, depression, anxiety, insecurity, fear, longing, and worry, to name only a few, every single one of us processes and moves through these experiences in different and diverse ways. There are no common timelines, no one right way to react to life’s hardships, no neat and tidy bumper sticker answers for every person’s circumstances. We are all products of our unique and personal circumstances, even amidst the countless common circumstances we share.  

And maybe to know that is enough.  

Although we can never fully inhabit the mind, spirit, or feelings of someone else, the one thing we all seem to share and need is to feel noticed, appreciated, valued, and not all alone in this life.  We need to know that others care.  We need to be accepted for who we are – for what we have in common and for our uniqueness. We need to be encouraged. We need to be given permission to share our individual and inherent gifts. We need to be respected simply because we are wonderfully-made creations. We need to be listened to – and given a voice to express our fears, our struggles, and our pain, as well as our excitement and our joy.  

Even though no one else can perfectly feel or comprehend all that we feel, it is enough that others try their best to be present with us in times of need, not distracted by everything that competes for our attention. That others show genuine interest. That others can acknowledge, when times for us are hard, that they are.  Simply that they are.  

That can be enough, especially if we’re not told to feel a different way, to suck it up and move on, or that we are wrong or weak or wayward.  

Someone To Tell It To is in the business of giving people a voice to process and share their lives – to sort things out, to find a way through, to know that they are being heard. It’s our mission. We also train and educate others in what it means to listen well and why it is vital to our relationships and the health of our organizations and relationships and personal lives.  

We may not know just what it’s like to lose someone we love so dearly to suicide, but we can advocate for them and let them know their anguish has been heard. We may not know the depth of the grief of a man who lost so much throughout his life, leading him to suicide. But we can take seriously the stories and the feelings those very much like him express, to show them love in their darkest days. We may not know the unknowable aspects of someone else’s pain — but we can offer them our ears and our hearts and our safe presence. 

While none of us can fully inhabit another’s condition, to model this kind of care – this kind of advocacy, love, and presence – it truly can be enough to lift others up, to carry them through, to show them that what is so deeply important to their individual lives, is valued and heard.  

It can be enough to help make their days better than they would be without these vital gifts.   


Photo by Moritz Schumacher on Unsplash

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