When do as you’d be done by means doing as you wouldn’t be done by (spoiler: it’s hard)

So yesterday I had to make a phone call and speak to someone who’s just lost her husband. The toughest thing for me about it? I had to do to her something I’d absolutely hate if I were in her shoes. Why? Because I know her well enough to know what she’d prefer, and it’s totally the opposite to how I’d feel.

This got me thinking about other things – it made me realise how hard it must be, for example, for extroverts to do what introverts long for: to leave us alone and give us the space we need. Because for an extreme extrovert, being left alone would be torture – it’s like asking someone to please please please just stick a needle in your eyeball or something. It’s not just that we’re asking them to accept that our needs are different – accepting the concept in theory is one thing, but acting on it… I know how excruciating I found that phone call yesterday, so I can just imagine…

The thing I had to do yesterday? I had to phone a recently bereaved person and talk about practical stuff without offering sympathy. I just knew she’d hate it if I brought up the painful subject, and the command to love everyone as I love myself means taking into account what I know about her preferences and, in this case, resisting my strong inclination to offer emotional support, and doing to her the very thing I found super painful when I was bereaved a few years ago: when my mum died the thing I found excruciatingly painful was when people who knew about it said nothing. It felt even worse than insensitive comments. I hated it.

And I remember what I learned ages ago after one of my mum’s cousins died – speaking with his partner some time later, I said that at the funeral IdI felt like I should be saying something but didn’t know what. “You could have said that,” he gently told me. “‘I don’t know what to say’ is better than silence.”

I’ve kept that lesson in mind over the years, and used it. But now, over twenty years later, I’ve learned another one: sometimes saying nothing is exactly what’s required. Because we humans are all different, and there’s no “one size fits all” when it comes to bereavement. (Or to lots of other things. Like how we feel about being alone, for instance.)

And through this experience – through the pain of it – I’ve also learned to be more understanding of extroverts and to appreciate how hard it must be for them to “just” give us some space…

Dear extroverts: I’m sorry. I get it now.

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