The fallacy of that statement was never more clear than when I was in labor with my first child. I’d just had a contraction so strong that my water broke right there in the bed. As I flopped back on my pillow to catch my breath before the next wave hit, my doctor, (a man) sympathetically patted my knee and assured me he knew what I was going through.
I wanted to yank off the fetal monitor strapped to my bulging belly and twist it around his neck. Later, when I was in a more lucid, less homicidal state, I realized that he really was just trying to help.
And let’s face it, we’ve all said something like that at one time or another. We don’t necessarily mean that we actually feel their pain, their sorrow, their anguish. By the time my newborn son drew a breath and cried out, my pain was gone. And even though I can commiserate with other women about childbirth, I’ve never been able to recreate that pain in my mind. (Thank God!)
What we mean is—I understand you’re going through something terrible.
When my son started kindergarten, he suffered with separation anxiety. While other kids assembled letters into words, and colored outside the lines, he sat in misery at his desk. Then he noticed another little boy crying. My son went over to the boy and asked, “Do you miss your mom, too?” Through his tears, the boy nodded yes.
Later, when my son’s teacher told me the story, she mentioned that the boy’s mother had died the month before. I was mortified. How could my son possibly think he understood what that boy was feeling?
But you know what? Those two little boys helped each other get through the day. And I guess that’s all we can do. Whether it’s a tweet, or a covered dish, a hug or a phone call. When life gives us a punch in the gut, it’s nice to have someone say, “I understand what you’re going through.”