James Burger

I was being retro and listening to the radio earlier on the drive home from a surprisingly-efficient HPCSA visit. A young girl was busy telling the story of her rape when she mentioned that people would tell her that everything happens for a reason. I was somewhat surprised at how much I took issue with this comment and the way we use blanket phrases such as these to placate people who have experienced tragedies.

There are a lot of evil things that happen in the world each and every day. In medicine we are exposed to a seemingly never-ending list of them and have to counsel our patients in the aftermath.
Can we really say to the mother of a child who was shot that it happened for a reason?
Can we say to a rape victim that this life-altering event happened for the benefit of victim, rather than purely due to the sick power-hungry drive of an antisocial assailant?

Grieving is not an easy process to go through. While some have been luckier than others in the extent of their losses, we have all grieved for a number of things in our lives, from the ubiquitous and mundane that we experience daily, to personal injury and losses of loved ones. We are all exposed to this so frequently, but we are notoriously bad at dealing with the emotions of others as they go through these experiences.

While we are awfully polite and always make sure to enquire after people on a superficial level, we are uncomfortable in showing and dealing with emotion. When faced with someone who is experiencing a loss of some sort, we panic and don’t know what to say, often offering cheap advice or inappropriate reassurances.

I have been in this situation many times, where I don’t know how to respond or how to make things better. I guess that comes from my nature and need to improve things – possibly why I found myself in my line of work as a doctor. Sometimes it’s not that easy or even possible to make things better acutely, especially in the early stages of loss and it is in times like these where we need to be careful of what we say.

To use the example of “everything happens for a reason,” I can understand that this can help certain people in situations where there was a degree of loss; I am very much of the opinion that people can respond well to and grow through adversity. However, using this concept inappropriately and using blanket statements in counselling our patients, friends and family can also be much more harmful than good.

We are taught to not give false reassurances in counselling patients or delivering bad news, which can be a reflex when a tearful or distraught person asks you a direct question. It is incredibly difficult to give the right balance of truth and information, together with a supportive attitude and good therapeutic outcomes in mind.

I believe that honesty is key in these discussions. It does need to be pitched at the right level, according to the griever’s needs, but honesty needs to be the core concept. If you cannot comprehend what it is like to be in that situation or if you don’t know what to say, that you can express that to them. The focus should be on helping them, not on how you can feel better about yourself by having said the right thing to make it all better.

Our role is to be supportive and provide a platform for them to heal and express themselves, not to patronisingly pretend that we have the solutions to fix all their problems for them. To use my favourite concept of active listening – be present with them.

*The views and opinions expressed in this article are that of the author and not necessarily of Thumela as a whole*
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