Care Capsule


Do Tell Your Story!

There Is A Time To Tell It

—— Dr. James R. Kok

In my article “Don't Show Up!”, I provided a caveat, an exception, perhaps even a seeming reversal of one of our core guidelines to providing care and kindness. I so strongly believe that ninety percent of the help and support we can give is in the simple, unselfish act of just showing up and being willing to listen, touch, or even just sit silently with someone who is hurting.

The sensitive person, however, needs to be aware that there are times when it is NOT in the other person’s best interest to be there with them. So now I offer another note of exception to our care maxims.

The important law, “Check Your Story at the Door”, grew out of endless experiences (and everybody has them) of beginning to share a difficult event, or to tell a story about something personal, and then having the intended listener go into his own long story of what happened to him.

Not long ago our Black Labrador Retriever died after a good long life. After nine holes of golf one morning, over coffee and sandwiches, I began to lay out my lament over the death of this special family member. I h ad not yet made much headway into relating my pain when Walt broke in. He had owned a Black Lab once and oh, how he loved that dog! He went on to tell his story and it was actually rather interesting. Then, when he paused, Gerry joined in about his Golden Retriever and how his kids had grieved when she was accidentally killed. On and on flowed the tales.

I, as the initiator, the chief lamenter, sat virtually forgotten as their memories surfaced, which had been triggered by my loss. This kind of thing happens “all the time.” You’ve undoubtedly experienced it. The original story teller gets left in the dust!

Now and then in my pastoral work I visit a young woman hospitalized for a brain tumor. Standing at the bedside of such a patient. I invariably think of my mother who died of a brain tumor fifty years ago at the age of 39. Invariably I experience a strong desire to tell the story about her battle. After all, it is relevant, it shows I am aware of the seriousness and difficulties involved, and that I am personally touched by such challenges.

But I bite my tongue. The story will not help this young woman. Although it is still powerfully present in me, sharing it at this bedside only helps me, not the young woman.

So the rule was formulated that caring people, who intend to be good listeners, must be vigilant about slipping into telling what comes into their minds. They should “check their story at the door” so that it stays safely on the sidelines.

Now it’s time to modify that law a little too.

There is a time to tell your story.

One occasion for telling your own is when you have been through something very difficult similar to that of the person to whom you are listening. To refrain from sharing your own experience may become a major turn-off if later he learns that you have gone through the same thing, but said nothing about it. It can feel fraudulent. Or certainly odd and puzzling.

A breast cancer survivor increases her credibility as a caring friend greatly when she briefly lets it be known, to a newly diagnosed patient, that she has been through it herself.

Likewise with a man who has had, for example, prostate surgery. Other examples could be added. But in my case, my mother’s story probably should not be mentioned because the patient with the brain tumor will probably want to know the outcome. That my mother died is not likely to encourage her!

The keys to sharing one’s own story are brevity and helpfulness.

  1. Your account must be a brief sidetrip that increases your credibility as a caring helper. Now he knows that you are personally familiar with this kind of challenge.
  2. Secondly, it should draw from your own experience information and feelings useful to the other.

Like this, for example: If visiting someone grieving the death of a child, you might say, “We went through the death of our son and it was devastating. This must be just terribly difficult for you.”

This statement briefly refers to one’s own experience while it draws out a description of how awful it was as a way of conveying compassionate understanding. After saying that much the presently-grieving parent is listened to again. That parent may at a later time inquire about how the visiting parent had coped with such a terrible loss or ask for other needed information, but now is not the time to launch into your whole tale.

Likewise in the dog death conversation: A helpful response could go like this: “Oh no! Our Black Lab died recently too. It is so sad!” That’s enough! Be brief! Then the attention is turned back to the first griever. That short response makes it known that he knows the crisis and accepts the sorrow. This allows the grieving dog lover to talk about his sadness instead of having to hold his feelings in check while listening to your story.

Here is an example shared by a pastor from a conversation he had with a Jiffy Lube manager he knew slightly, whose brother had just died:

Jiffy Lube: “I sure hope this year turns out better. I have also had some financial problems. I forgot to cash my check last week, so now the bank is upset. I just forgot, with my brother’s death and all”

Pastor: “I know what you mean. When my Dad died in April, I forgot a lot of things, including what hours I was working at the hospital one day. It’s part of grieving . . .”

Quickly he communicated empathy and let the other know his own pain. Then he paused so Jiffy Lube could resume.

Keeping your story succinct is not always easy. If we are recalling a trauma of our own, plenty of emotion is still there. Rarely, if ever, is it totally erased from our hearts. So when we open the door to say a little, it is the most natural thing to start telling the whole story. Old hurts always need more therapy. Talk helps.

But when reaching out to someone in the thick of their tough time, we must vigilantly guard their opportunity to talk. Care includes holding back our personal stories while offering just a quick revelation.

Instead of “checking your story at the door” carry it, and dole it out thoughtfully.

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