What follows was written by Glenn Robitaille and shared with the staff at Waypoint Centre for Mental Health Care last Friday, April 17. Glenn is the Director of Ethics and Spiritual Care at Waypoint and is also Covenant's founding pastor and a part of our Covenant family. He has given me permission to share this with you. I pray it is a blessing to you.
Thank you, Glenn, for sharing this with us.
"There are times when explanations, no matter how reasonable, just don't seem to help." Fred Rogers
With a surname like Robitaille, people may be surprised to know that I was born in Cleveland and raised in Pittsburgh. My grandfather, Percy Robitaille, moved from Penetanguishene to Cleveland during the Great Depression, promptly fell in love and the rest is history. Later my father plucked my mother from Penetanguishene and moved her to Ohio in the early 50’s, then moved our family from Cleveland to Pittsburgh in 1967. While Penetanguishene has been a part of my life since conception, I didn’t actually move to Canada until March of 1972 nearly 50 years ago. My formative years were mostly spent in Bethel Park, Pennsylvania, where the hit television show This is Us, is filmed.
I knew Fred Rogers from his work on WQED Pittsburgh before the rest of the world saw his genius. My brother Gilbert and I “cut our eye teeth” on his practical wisdom, in spite of the fact that nearly every adult we knew thought he was strange. The quote above was one he used when he was trying to help children understand the meaning of death.
There are times when words simply do not help. I remember holding an IV bag over a six-year-old boy who lay dying on the floor while two paramedics unsuccessfully worked to revive him. He was born with a heart defect that predicted a short life, but that fact didn’t make his loss any easier for the parents, nor did it make any supposed words of comfort on my part any less anemic. Sometimes words, no matter how reasonable, cannot lessen the weight of the problem we are facing.
But presence often does.
Often the best thing one can do is say nothing and just listen, or empathically observe. As a psychotherapist, I am aware that the level of attention I am paying to what another is saying, or the proper mirroring of emotion, can be more helpful to a client than a whole lot of psychobabble. Words of encouragement and gratitude are helpful; expressing love and appreciation are essential. But explanations? In moments like this, they can be a poor replacement for humility, empathy and honest being.
Parents often ask me whether allowing their young children to attend a funeral is a good thing. I explain that children will emotionally take their cues from parents, so it is important to tell them that tears and sadness are okay right now, and that you are all right. Parents are security to their children, so preparing them is important in learning about loss and how to process your emotions at such times. If you have young children, you can help set them at ease by explaining that this is a challenging time for everyone, but that you are okay. You can normalize the increased vigilance and whatever emotion you are emoting so they don’t personalize what they are seeing. Kids often see themselves as the centre of the universe and the cause of any disruption to the norm, so transparency and encouragement are essential.
It is also important to encourage one another by simply hearing what each of us is saying. Increased patience on our part with people who are more on edge, and pausing to listen when someone we work with or care about is venting is a good thing. We don’t have to solve their problems; we can simply be that person who lets them be human.
We will all get through this if we remember that everyone matters to someone and everyone is worthy of our compassion and respect. This is a good thing we are doing. We all need that kind of presence and support.
Please take good care.