Note: This is a long post. I don’t even know if this counts as a “blog post”, but we are just going to roll with it. Spirit will not be censored or shortened. -EB
I recently learned of the passing of Karyn Washington- a young, vibrant, powerful beautiful woman who started and was leading a movement to uplift, empower and inspire black and brown women the world over. As I read pieces of her story online, my heart grew heavy. I didn’t even need to ask “why”; it was a deep inner knowing of what the mixture of pressure (from any source), darkness and despair can do to even the strongest and happiest of souls, especially the helping souls on this earth.
Karyn is not the first person that we have heard of via social media that has committed suicide. A few weeks ago famed fashion designer L’Wren Scott took her own life, and every day, if you look for it, you will find a soul who felt that death was better than life. The real world and spiritual nuances of depression and suicide are too complex to discuss in this blog post but let me say this: disconnection is one of the roots and the resulting imbalance and despair is real and dangerous to one’s psyche.
As news of this sort comes down our timelines and news feeds, messages of support, condolence, shock and posthumous accolades are shared. There are calls and cries for people to “not be ashamed of their depression”, to “seek help”, to “hold on because there is a better way”, “joy is on the other side” and every other saying that comes up. These sentiments are true. They are the ways in which we express sadness and grief. But, there is something more powerful than this: to be of a helping spirit and share your voice with others.
One of the greatest gifts that we can give to another human being is to reach out and be present. To really hear them, to acknowledge and validate their feelings (no matter how silly we may think they are), and to mirror back what we heard them say. Sometimes, this simple act of being present and bearing witness can mean the difference between life and death.
The main thing that I think prevents us from having these hard ass conversations is that we just don’t know how. We don’t want to be afflicted with the sadness. We don’t want to own other people’s problems and we don’t want to take on other people’s shit as our own. And that is fair because heavy is just that…. heavy. However, there are tools and skills that can be used to have what I like to call Conscious Conversations- conversations that provide space for people to express their pain in a productive pathway to peace.
I want to be clear that I am not writing this from the space of being a licensed psychologist, therapist, counselor or medical professional. These tips are not to be used in lieu of someone getting the professional, therapeutic or medical help that they need. I am speaking from my space as a trained coach, a healer with my voice and words, a practitioner of life, as someone who has intervened, and as someone who has personally dealt with depression, suicidal ideations and was fortunate (and still remain fortunate) to have a great therapist and a solid inner circle of wise women, wild women, spiritual advisors and a licensed counselor that I call sisters and friends. They helped me see my way through the deepest places of despair as I struggled to follow and live my dreams. I have also been this person (and continue to be) to other women from all walks of life.
It’s also important to note that (1) these tools are also not helpful for people who do not want to talk (even when you do reach out) or who are in denial about their pain. (2) this does not absolve the person in pain from doing their part and doing their inner work, but this does give you the tools to be a beacon of light in an abyss of despair. Use at your will, but please use these tools responsibly.
Some tips for having meaningful conversations with people who are in pain. This is not a complete list and tips are listed in no particular order:
- Ask how they are doing and really mean it. If you don’t really care- don’t ask.
- If this is a close friend, broach the topic gently: “I notice that you have been feeling X lately- what’s up?” Or “I notice that you haven’t been doing X lately- what’s going on?”
- Be quiet. Just listen. Refrain from interrupting. Refrain from giving advice. Refrain from saying “I told you so”, asking “why” and using the word “should”.
- After listening, affirm what they have said. Share your experience if you have it or insight but not advice- unless it’s asked for.
- If they feel open to it and you feel up to it, ask powerful questions. Powerful questions are empowering questions that are open-ended. They require an answer harder than yes or no and deeper than I don’t know. Truth is, most people know what is going on, but they feel a sense of shame or embarrassment about sharing their deepest truth. Again, you are not in the conversation to judge but to just listen and be a safe, caring ear. If they say, “I don’t know”- use your best judgment on whether or not it is a good idea to push. Powerful Question Examples:
- What’s going on?
- How do you feel?
- How do you want to feel?
- What would make you feel better?
- What’s going right? (shift perspective)
- Important: You will want your line of questioning to be in line with your ability to help. If you are out of your comfort zone OR if the conversation is triggering your own stuff in an uncomfortable way have a referral or several on hand or offer to assist in the search. Help is accessible through community-based programs, hotlines, progressive churches and spiritual centers, health insurance programs, private practitioners who provide services on a sliding scale and if they are employed- through an Employee Assistance Program (if their organization has one).
- If the person you are speaking to is in crisis (you will know it when you see it and feel it), get immediate help. National Suicide Hotline: 1-800-273-8255. Suicide.org also has a great listing of all the state/local/regional crises hotlines.
- Oh, and if talking to a professional would be a good idea but they are really not open to it, you can try saying something like this “you know- you are really brave to be sharing your thoughts with me. It sounds like you are going through a lot and it might be of some benefit to talk to someone who can help you in the way that you deserve.” At this point, you can share your referral, or if you feel so inclined, support them in their search for a practitioner.
- And if you find yourself having the same conversation with the same person over and over again- it may be time be more direct: ” I think you might benefit from talking with a professional- how can I help make that happen for you?”
- Keep the confidence. It’s all about creating a safe space for people. Most people do not share because in addition to their shame and embarrassment, they do not feel safe.
Today, I am challenging all of us to empower ourselves to have conscious conversations with people. To talk to the uber happy person who appears to have their shit together. To talk to somebody that you know is having a rough time and be there for them provided that they are in a place to receive your brand of medicine. To talk to the person who is always giving. To reclaim the practice where we have sister circles, brother circles, people circles- where we gather for no reason other than to connect and talk about life.
And if you are giver, a builder, a helping spirit, know that you need someone to talk to on a consistent basis. Open yourself up to it. Seek counsel in a wise friend and treat yourself to therapy and counseling sessions before you need it. .