When Disappointment Strikes: How to Comfort a Loved One
Disappointment is part of life. We never know when this feeling is going to hit us. Disappointments come in many forms and varying degrees of pain: missing the state championship game by one point, being passed up for a promotion and finding it is going to a less qualified and newer employee, finding out that your child is on drugs, getting bad news after a medical exam, finding out someone you love has a terminal disease, or having your partner leave the relationship. The list of possibilities could fill many pages. How do we deal with this sometimes devastating news? How do we support our partner or loved one when they receive this type of news? Perhaps a conversation is needed with your partner, child, friend or parent on how you would like to be loved and supported when disappointing news comes your way. Having someone know how you want to be supported can be an enormous help.
Recently I experienced very disappointing news. I have written a book about my mother’s dying process and how her attitude during her final weeks was so uplifting and inspiring, that it actually transformed the lives of everyone in our family. I have a wonderful agent who is representing the book and very excited about it. We had received ten rejections so far. The editors of these publishing companies loved the book and the idea, but their marketing departments shot it down each time. Finally it looked like it would all come together with a major publishing company. The senior editor loved the book project and went into the final meeting ready to fight if necessary with the marketing department. She sent a very sad email that she was outraged and extremely disappointed that her marketing department vetoed the project. When I read her email, it was one rejection too many for me and I burst into sobs. Barry held me for about a half hour, which was just what I needed. Then he got up to continue his day, but I was not done crying. I was not just crying for this rejection, but for all of the rejections that have come my way through publishing and other situations. I was also crying because it was a book about my mother and it was her birthday the next day. I really wanted to get the book published as a gift to her, and I knew how much she wanted this information to help other people.
Usually, when I cry, it is over in a short time. But this cry was big and lasted off and on throughout the day. Later on, Barry tried to cheer me up with positive comments like, “I know we’ll find a publisher.” These comments were beautiful and I know that he meant to help me, but it was like another dam holding back this huge emotion that was surging through me. In those moments I could not receive his helpful comments. I knew I just had to allow all of the pain to come up and be felt.
By the end of the day I felt better and Barry and I had a conversation I wish we would have had long before this disappointment. How do we each want to be treated when disappointing news comes along? This was a really big disappointment for me and I needed to just feel the pain and cry. I loved when he held me and it was even alright when he left to continue his day. But the helpful comments were interfering with the process I knew I needed to go through.
It is also important to be able to express in the moment what you need. Sometimes I receive disappointing news and I will ask Barry, “Can you just tell me everything will be OK?” Then he holds me and gives me wonderful advice and wisdom and I love it. Barry told me that similarly he just wants to be held and if he wants helpful comments he will ask for it in the moment. Sometimes love requires that we just hold the person while they go through the disappointment, not trying to rescue or fix them. If you are not sure what your partner needs, just ask, “Right now what are you most needing?”
It is also helpful to have these conversations with your loved one before they go through one of these big disappointments. People will want and need different things and we won’t really know until we ask them. Some people just want to be held and allowed to feel the disappointment. Some will want their loved one or friend to pray for them immediately or perhaps to hear words of wisdom and encouragement. Some will want their loved one to drop what they are doing and just be there physically.
Twenty six years ago we had just published our first book, The Shared Heart, and were starting to travel and do workshops. Barry was also working as a doctor at the UCSC medical clinic for students. As our workshops became more frequent, it became more stressful for Barry to continue working as an MD in the clinic. One day Barry called me from his job and asked me to come and be with him. His boss, the medical director, had just “let him go” from this job. This was a complete surprise to both Barry and I. His boss loved him very much and told him that he needed to do this because Barry’s heart was no longer into medicine, and he needed to go and do what was his passion. Though this turned out to be a wise decision on the boss’s part, it was still very disappointing and Barry’s voice choked up as he told me.
I dressed our two little girls, ages 3 and 8, in their prettiest dresses. We picked some flowers and drove the half hour to the campus clinic. When we arrived Barry was so grateful to see us and receive a family hug. He just needed our physical presence there with him. Rami, age 8, was holding the flowers and wanted to give them to his boss, for she felt that he must be sad as well. We all marched in and the girls gave the boss the flowers and told him he must be sad as well. He started to cry. Barry and I and our girls all gave him a big hug. Fifteen minutes later I was back in the car driving the girls home. It was a lot of effort for such a short time, but it was just what Barry needed to help him with the disappointment.
Ultimately, we each know what we need when we are disappointed. Telling your friend or partner just how they can support you will be an enormous help in difficult times. We all want to help and really be there for one another when disappointment strikes. Knowing what our loved one wants ahead of time, will allow you to be fully present and comforting.