What does it mean to show support to others in their times of need?
Last week, I witnessed a family having a crisis where they lost two members within a span of just two days. Naturally, their grief was heart-rending. Many friends, relatives, and well-wishers came to visit. The family is strong, however, so I expected them to handle the flood of sympathizers gracefully.
But what I was not expecting was all the people pestering the family to recount, over and over again, every tiny detail of what happened before death struck: “How many people were at the hospital?” “What were the children doing?” “How long were you standing at the bed?” “What signs did you see?”
Why would you ask a person, who has just suffered an irreplaceable loss, to remember perhaps the hardest times of their life?
It seems that we Bangladeshis have quite a twisted idea when it comes to showing support. We do not know how to be sympathetic, let alone show empathy, and often make the process more about ourselves than the person for whom the support was meant.
We want the grieving person to remember how we supported them.
We may have made some achievements in terms of development indices and such, but when it comes to human values and emotional intelligence, we still have a long way to go.
Take, for example, my friend whose daughter has Down syndrome -- her relatives cannot be bothered to even look up cursory information on Down syndrome, but their unsolicited “advice” is nigh endless: “You need to spend more time with her; you need more children -- another baby will surely make her more responsive.”
Not once did these people pause to think about how their words affected my friend.
The same happens when someone does poorly in public exams. Most visitors show their support by recounting a sad story of their life that has nothing to do with the student, and then give unsolicited advice.
There is also a clear gender bias. The way people approach men in their crisis is very different. Whereas for women the emotion is more about her helplessness, for men it is about appreciating their steadfastness. The way media “supports” rape survivors (instead of calling them “victims”) by detailing their torture further traumatizes them.
Another potent group is married women without children -- now that I have been married for three years, I receive questions about having babies regularly.
I remember when my khalu left us for good. It was a terrible shock. Like clockwork, people flooded into my khala’s apartment, people who rarely visit, and started crying at the top of their lungs in front of my devastated khala.
Her kids were visibly confused and lost. And then, after a few days, the family elders decided that my young khala should not resign to “widowhood” (a sentiment I most appreciate, God knows how many women have been tortured in the name of upholding the sanctity of widowhood).
But the way this apparently liberal emotion unfolded was unnerving: My grief-stricken khala was tightly held from both sides, and then some relative forced gold bangles on her wrists which she had taken off.
Such acts are anything but supportive. Where was my khala’s agency? Her consent? What kind of support does one render by forcing adornments on a grieving person that in no way would help her state of mind?
All these experiences indicate that, when showing our emotional support, we focus more on visible acts than psychological strength. What people need in crisis is support that lets them process the shock, like bringing them food, checking if there is clean laundry, helping out with necessary paperwork, medical help, etc.
Sometimes, you don’t even need to speak. Hold their hand and sit silently. Let the other person hug you for as long as they want.
Showing empathy and sympathy is not that hard if we mean it. Let us try to remember that showing support about bringing positivity, assurance, and calmness. Let us show helpful emotions, so we may bring some colour to someone’s dark day.
Arpeeta Shams Mizan is a socio-legal analyst. She teaches at University of Dhaka.