Two women talking intensely in the kitchen with blue coffee mugs

What do you do when there is no answer — Lessons from my client

Blythe Landry Guidance

Grief. Trauma. Crises. Addiction. Loss. Abuse. All of the above. Sometimes all for one person, sometimes spread out amidst a family. Sometimes the bad things happen, and we simply do not know why.

I’m a spiritual person. To the extreme I would say. Not religious. Just spiritual. And, I, on some cellular level believe that everything around us has poignancy and relevance and opportunity. And that is all fine and good when you are in a great spot or a good moment in life. But let’s face it. On any given day at any given second…someone on this planet or some people, in fact, are experiencing the very best most amazing moment of their lives. And others..maybe a handful, maybe more..are experiencing what will be the very worst thing that will ever transpire in their lifetimes..and all at once, things change for both people. And in those moments NOBODY, and I do mean NOBODY, wants to hear how spiritual and amazing this crisis is. It is SO EASY when life is showing us the good things, for us to remember and create meaning out of the bad. But, without question, when we or someone we love is the subject of an horrific accident, a loss of physical freedom, the suicide of a friend, the murder of a relative, the tragic and lifelong pervasiveness of sexual abuse by a parent or other adult who is supposed to be keeping us safe, life changes. Relevancy shifts. Truth evolves. And sometimes it just doesn’t make any sense.

One of the earliest lessons I learned as a budding therapist was that I had no real answers. Not only did I learn this from a client, but I also learned that THE MOST valuable thing I could offer a person in acute and real pain in the wake of a tragedy (or series of them) was to stand still and admit that while I could fix nothing, I was willing to sit in the muck and the pain with my client(s) for as long as it took until they didn’t need me to sit in it with them any longer. That was it. That was all I could do.

I learned this from a woman who came into my office with what was, at the time, the most horrific thing I had ever heard (since I am a grief and trauma therapist, I have since heard many stories at this level of atrocity..some even worse). Doesn’t matter who or what or why. What matters is it was bad. Like really bad. And I was literally at a loss for words. I didn’t know what to do, but here is what I did.

As the woman was leaving my office, I paused with her at the door and said some variation of the following words: “I can’t believe this. I legitimately have no words for what has occurred in your life. I don’t know what I’m going to do, nor do I know how we are going to fix this. Well, let me take that back. We can’t fix this. This is unfixable. And it would be minimizing this for me to say it were. It is too big for that. Too important. I don’t know what we are going to do, but here is what I DO know. I’m here. I’m willing to be here. Every week. No matter what. I’m willing to be in this with you, to the extent that anyone else can understand. And I’m willing to admit that even though I have no idea how to help you, I do know that I will sit with you for as long as it takes, and if you will be patient with me, I promise you I will find a way, and we will get you through this together.” So some variation of those words. Probably far less eloquent and much more confused.

 

And here is what happened…

 

The next week, this woman took an hour and a half train…each way…to see me. This woman had almost nothing. But she showed up. Even when she didn’t have quarters for the train ride, she would figure out a way to find them so she could get to me. And she proceeded to do that for three years until one day..she didn’t need me anymore. She had gotten to a place where we had not fixed her pain, but we had integrated it, and she could stand up and out and function in her life with some joy and clarity and grace again. A true miracle story.

After some time working with her, she explained to me why she kept coming back and back and back. She said it was because of that very last moment at the door on her way out of our initial appointment. She said that she had seen three or four other therapists for one appointment only before she came to me. She told me that they had all talked about knowing things and theories and ways they would help her heal. She felt worse after she had left their offices. She told me that it made her feel crazier, more afraid, more confused and more alone. She also told me that my willingness to admit that I literally had no clue about what we were going to do (and that I was horrified for her as to the series of events that had occurred in her life) and was willing to sit and be there in it with her with no plan in place was the ONLY reason she came back. The ONLY one. And that because of that one moment, she knew she could trust me.

While I consider that moment of grace at the door a legitimate divine intervention far more powerful than me, I will say this: That client taught me one of the most valuable lessons of not only my career, but of my entire life. That in the admission of my ignorance, I am far more powerful and of use to others than in the grandiosity of what I perceive to be my “knowledge.”

Now that entire story is not about asserting that I, or any fallible human, can always have the right thing to say or the right words at the right time. What it does mean is this: when we become willing to admit we don’t have all the answers: as professionals, as friends, as lovers, as partners, as parents, as neighbors; what we do do is allow the other person to speak and to be seen. We take ourselves and our fears and our desires to ‘look together” or “good” out of the equation, and we literally create the space for the other human being to completely fall apart. And in that falling apart, a miracle happens. They get to find their own way, in their own time, to coming back together again.

I see this all the time. People who carry such intense trauma and pain, they are literally without words. People who sabotage every area of their lives that is good and joyous, because they feel so worthless or undeserving. People who have had stories and things happen to them that sometimes give me pause to the point where I can barely catch my breathe it is so painful to know about. But I don’t leave. I just wait. I sit with them. I remind myself that it didn’t happen to me and the least I can do as a “spiritual” person is to allow them a strong and proverbial shoulder upon which to cry. And in that sitting….and standing…. and throwing the ball back in their court, they change.

Yes that is right, they change. And they change not by me, but through me. Not because of me, but in spite of me. The “me” that feels the need to be an arbiter or a vessel of human evolution is not the me that helps people. The me that gets out of the way, does less of the work, tells the truth about how bad things are, and allows the other person to be in a space of horror and ache. That is the me that helps bring about change.

So how does this relate to you? What has happened in your life? What has happened to someone you love? Are you being a person who sits in pain with others and allows the truth that sometimes bad things are so bad that no words can erect a story of meaning around them? Some hurts so deep, maybe there is no answer to how things will proceed. Maybe some traumas and pains are so profound that allowing someone the gift of your story and letting them sit with you in it so you can feel less alone is the only thing that will work. And maybe just being the person or friend or professional that is willing to admit that you have no idea what you are doing or why this happened, but you are willing to figure it out and stick around. Maybe that is the best, and the most effective thing you can do.

Not everything has an answer. Not everything has an excuse. Not everything can be explained away. And sometimes, the most loving thing we can do is to just let it be as bad as it is and go from there.

If you or a loved one is experiencing acute grief, trauma or loss, I would be honored to help. Please contact me and refer to this blog.