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What Not to Say to Struggling Loved Ones during the Holidays


What Not to Say to Struggling Loved Ones during the Holidays

Bethany O
Bethany O

One perk of being from a large family and having no control over my tear ducts is that I am the lucky recipient of a lot of advice.

I also have a lot of data for studying how people respond to my pain.

On one remarkable occasion of untimely tear ducts, my eyelids started leaking just when 30ish family members gathered around two 50th birthday cakes to sing a little diddy to two special birthday girls.

This day was noteworthy because it broke a personal record.  In the 30-minutes following the final serenade of “Happy Birthday to you,” concerned loved ones offered me all of the following:

  • sympathy,
  • God,
  • hugs of varying severities,
  • inspiring quotations,
  • music,
  • a massage,
  • advice of varying desperations,
  • pharmaceuticals,
  • compliments,
  • space,
  • CAKE
  • laughter,
  • sundry other such offerings.

When people see you struggling, they tend to tell you you need the thing that THEY need when they are struggling.

Which is super helpful, in the highly unlikely event that it’s true.

[Let me be clear that I am NOT requesting that you people stop with the above generous offerings!  Because--COME ON!!!  OFFERINGS!]

Here come some observations that I think could serve the world:

  • By my rough estimates, one million percent of the time, advice-givers have BEAUTIFUL and KIND and LOVING intentions.
  • For sure we’d be hard-pressed to think of a richer blessing in life than a suffocatingly generous family!  [POUNDSIGNTHANKFUL]
  • SOMETIMES well-meaning advice-givers are unintentionally inflammatory.

(Not in MY family, of course!  MY family only says RIGHT THINGS!  I have mainly heard this from other individuals, is all!  Mere conjecture is what this is!)

But now I’m thinking.

Today is Thanksgiving, which as we all know is the day families gather around dead birds to feast and inadvertently hurt each others’ feelings.

I’m thinking of Bridget Jones, who dreaded the holidays because people would always pity-ask her if she had found a boyfriend yet.

And I’m thinking of some friends who are going through some really hard times right now:  divorce, miscarriage, sickness, mourning, job-loss.  I’m concerned they might avoid family on Thanksgiving—the very thing their hearts need for healing—because they dread the pity-parties and the suffocation by advice-givers.

Which is why I want to offer some advice to all the unsolicited advice-givers of the world.

[And for dessert:  IRONY!]

Here are some examples of well-intentioned comments that may or may not be inflammatory:

“I see you struggling and sometimes I feel sad too.”

[NICE!!  100 points for vulnerability.  Thanks for being human, you.]

"...sometimes I feel sad too and I understand what you're going through."

[WRONG.  No you don't know her pain.]

“I have felt sad too and I fixed it so you just need to do what I did to feel better.” 

[Minus two hundred points for creating a Victim/Hero superiority dynamic.  Also:  Yellow card on the invalidation.]

“I see you are sad and you just need to focus on the positive.” 

[Minus ten million points for invalidating like it’s your job.]

“I see you are sad and I AM SO CONCERNED.”

[Minus all the points.  Who is this about?  I’m exhausted just reading your sentence.]

Again:  I see your intentions and I know they are so, so good!  It's the delivery we're tweaking!

The above examples landed on this page all willy-nilly-like, but the reason I came on here today was to tell you about my uncle Jim.

That day at the double-50th birthday fest, I snuck away to another room for a breather, what with all the good advice I was getting.

My uncle came in.

“Hey,” he said, open-heartedly.  (You know an open heart when you see one, friends!)

‘I never know what to say,” he said.  “Your aunts are so much better with advice than I am.  But I want you to know that I care.  Would you mind if I just sit quietly with you?”


Listen.  I’m sure you have a lot of helpful suggestions for your loved one.  But your advice is bandaids on arterial spray if you skip the part about loving them AS THEY ARE.

When we see a person’s pain and instinctively try to change it, we inadvertently create the illusion of conditional love.

We are saying, “I love you, and I need you to change so that I will feel more comfortable.”

Our good intention shifts from being about THEM to being about US.

But as Oriah Mountain Dreamer says, "I want to know if you can sit with pain—mine or your own—without moving to hide it or fade it or fix it.

I can think of no more admirable show of character than this.

I can think of no better gift you could give your loved one this holiday than this message:

“I see you.  I can sit with your pain without moving to change you.  Because I love you just the way you are.” 

Which is why today I will sit with the well-meaning advice givers, and I will not try to change their approach.

Because I love them just the way they are.

Especially when they are offering massages.



It Will Be Simple. And It Will Be Beautiful. (So Help Me God.)

I wrote this in June. As you surely noticed, December immediately followed June this year.  This post was one of the many items that fell to the wayside during that rare calendar event.

With the holidays upon us, it could not have resurfaced at a better time for me.


Bethany O Photography_0354.jpg
Bethany O Photography_0354.jpg

September is the time of year when I think it is a good idea to sign the children up for all the things.  I register for classes, seek festivals, set play dates, and generally fill our calendar until its seams pop.

That's one of the requisites for being a "good mom," right?

In our case, we attend music classes, soccer, dance classes and the like, not because I have grandiose ideas of my children becoming the next Chopin or Pele or Paula Abdul, but because I find it is generally best for everybody involved if this stay-at-home-mom (SAHM) does not, in fact, stay at home.

June, though.  Now is the time of year when I realize that we are so busy ALWAYS GOING SOMEWHERE that we never get to just BE.

Essentially, we human beings are too busy being human doings to actually do any BEING.

Am I being clear?

June is when I become convinced that I will only be able to wrestle the kids into their car seats 3-7 more times before, so help me God, I lose my ever-loving mind.

June is when I want to SIMPLIFY.  SIMPLICITY, I tell you!  It is the "good moms" who keep things simple, is it not?

So last Saturday, we cleared the calendar for one plan and one plan only.  We would turn on the sprinkler.  The children would run in the grass.  Husband and I would observe how beautifully the sunlight back-lit the water drops dancing through their laughter.  We would sit.  We would just BE.

And it would be beautiful.

The only detail to address was that we didn't have a sprinkler.  No biggie:  we live five minutes from Benny's (our local hardware-and-more store.)  We would go get a sprinkler.  We'd come home and plug it in.  They would laugh, we would sit.

Simple.  Beautiful.


Upon entering Benny's, we walked straight into the toy aisle, which is positioned directly in front of the entrance.  (Well played, Benny's.  Well played.)

During our frolic down aisle 1, our almost-two-year-old daughter placed roughly 27 items into our shopping cart.  Since I was replacing them as quickly as she picked them, the whole thing seemed cute and innocent enough.

Until it didn't.

When we reached the beach pails, said daughter turned around to survey her bounty, and the earth dropped out from beneath us.

"NO!!!!!!!!!!!!," she screamed from the depths of her.  "DAS MIIIIIIIIIIIIIIINE BOAT!!!  DAS MIIIIIIIIIIIIIIINE DOLLY!!!  DAS MIIIIIIIIIINE EAR-O-PLANE!!!!"

When she launched herself face-first upon the floor, I picked her up, just as Beverly Cleaver would do.

But Beverly Cleaver never taught us the proper hold for a screaming child who has perfected the art of the horizontal open-and-close jackknife body buck.  While I struggled to 1) keep her from falling and 2) play it cool for the growing number of on-lookers, my just-turned-four-year-old son announced that he needed to use the potty.

Husband was running another errand.

I can handle situations like this.  I am strong, and not easily jostled, or at least that's what I like to think.

But THIS DAY was supposed to be simple.  THIS was FUN AND SIMPLE AND BEAUTIFUL DAY, for crying out loud.  There are NO TANTRUMS on fun and simple and beautiful day, DOESN'T EVERYBODY KNOW THAT??

I abandoned our cart and diverted the childrens' attention to the automobile aisle, where there was a well-placed rack of colorful women's sundresses for only $6.  (I KNOW!  Can you believe it???  Only $6!)  The kids--easily distracted--embraced the cave-like qualities of the clothing rack, so I seized my chance to try on the sundresses over my outfit.

My sense of personal style can be described as nothing if not "opportunistic."

The third time the store manager came to our giggling-and-shaking clothing rack to ask if he could help with anything, I recognized that he did not understand how fabulously CONTAINED my children were in there.

That was also when I realized that the terribly ripe diaper smell wafting from the rack was becoming an embarrassment, even for me, the woman trying on sun dresses in the automobile section of Benny's.

(I'll have you know that it was our diapered daughter--not our potty-trained son--who was responsible for the smell.  [Hashtag thankful.])

So, being the model parent that I am, I took one child's hand in each of mine and set out to find my husband, who should have surely, so help him God, finished his previous errand and arrived at Benny's by now.

Which is when things took a turn for the worse.

In an effort to prove that young children truly do not have any impulse control whatsoever, my son released my hand, grabbed a styrofoam bat, swung the way his college-baseball-star-father taught him, and whacked a hunched elderly man in the back of the legs as we passed.

WHY.  IS.  SIMPLE.  SO.  VERY.  HARD???????????

Husband (thank-you-Jesus) materialized just then to whisk the baby off for a diaper change, and I retreated to the lawn chair section to put our son--and myself--in Time Out.

Simplicity waits for us in Time Out, you know.

That's where I saw things more clearly.

I saw that, when I had been trying to distract the baby from her tantrum, I blew raspberries into her neck.  Until the day I die, I want to always remember the way my nose squishes into the soft-but-firm folds of that baby's neck.  I want to always remember the sweetness of her high-and-low pitched laughter tickling my ear canal.

Because that is simple.  And it is oh-so-beautiful.

How relieved was I to see my husband when he appeared?  How proud was I when our shy boy looked that elderly man in the eye to sincerely apologize?  How high did I feel when my heart skipped that beat?

Those moments - the in betweenmoments - they're so simple.  So beautiful.

The [very] elderly man emptied the contents of his pockets into my son's hand, which, once the life savers were removed, totaled six coins amounting to 19 cents.

Get a load of this.  That elderly man then thanked me for "raising [my] kids the right way."  I'm willing to overlook the fact that clearly he was either senile or had me confused with someone else, because--well--19 cents is 19 cents, you know?

That man told us he was especially thankful that my son made him smile that day, because his granddaughter had had to cancel their lunch date that day, and he was feeling a little lonely.

Which brings a happy tear and a sad one to my eye.  Simple and beautiful ones.

The best moment of all was when another tantrum erupted in the parking lot on the way back to the car.  In an effort to keep our flailing children from getting hit by traffic, husband and I released our hold on the too-many-items we had just purchased, and they spilled onto the pavement.

What caused that tantrum?

Oh, our son had grabbed my hand.  And our daughter, in her daddy's arms, became irate.

"NO!!!!!!!!" she yelled.  "DAS MIIIIIIIIIIINE MOMMY!!!!!!!!!"

So simple.

And oh, so beautiful.


Sending all of my readers so much love and appreciation today, and wishing you all a very simple, very beautiful holiday season.

In case of emergency, remember:  simplicity waits for us in time out and hides in the in-between moments.  

With love and light, B 



My Wishes For You

In the interest of Keeping It Simple, Santa, I'mma be mighty quick (yet purposeful) this morning...

Regardless of which holiday traditions you do or do not celebrate, here are my wishes for you today:

May your hugs be genuine.  May your hugs pause time.

May your kindness towards others be deeply rooted in kindness towards yourself.

May you smile from your belly.

May your excitement for the many great new things that you get to HAVE today be superseded by your excitement for all of the great new things you get to BE today.

May your breaths be deep.

May you harness the courage to take the next tiny step towards whatever your intuition is calling you to do.

May you then take the next step and then the next.

May you be happy.  May you be well.  May you let yourself shine.

See you in 2013!

Merry, Happy, Felice, Joyeux, Feliz, Tuesday.

Love and light,



[Pssst!  Were you hoping for a little more to chew on today?

I recently had the pleasure of doing an interview with Melody Joy Deetz for her "Truth-Telling Series."

Melody asks some awesome questions which will be perfect conversation-starters around your dinner tables today.  

Check out our interview and please be sure to say hi to Melody while you're there!]




Keep It Simple Santa: How to Walk the Walk for a Simple Holiday

Simplify, Simplify, Simplify:  That's my motto from now through the holidays.

Yesterday, we scrapped our plans to visit the children's' museum so we could take a walk as a family.  Midway through, I sat on the cold ground and watched the sunlight bounce off my daughter's hair.  The way she turned her head into the wind while the salt air blew the seagulls' cries towards us brought me instantly back to childhood days at the beach when I was cuddled under a towel, pondering nothing other than the sound of the seagulls muffled by the wind.

Simple perfection.  And yet, we could have been battling crowds at the museum.

On Saturday, instead of rushing around to make an elaborate meal for my husband after his long work week, I threw some chicken in the crock pot so that I could lay on the floor with him and relish the sweet discomfort of our babies stepping on our bellies and faces as we huddled together.  Seemingly for the first time, I looked into his eyes and noticed that his pupils dilate when he looks into mine.   When our kids got intermittently distracted, I stole kisses from my husband, nibbling his giant bottom lip and appreciating its rubbery texture between my teeth.

Simple perfection.  And yet, I could have been cooking.

I get it right sometimes, this "Simplify" thing.  Other times:  not so much.   Like when I write lately.  Not so simple.

(Actually - let me ask you facetiously:  is starting and then scrapping seven posts on seven different subjects a good example of simplification?  Because if so, then my writing process for today's post has been a resounding success.  NAILED IT, actually!!)

But no:  I've blown 99% of my allocated writing time today to a cornocopia of half-baked ideas, and yet all I have in front of me is a blank screen and what I've claimed to be my mantra:  Simplify.  Simplify.  Simplify.

My handicap when it comes to writing is that I want to be too many things for too many people:  kinda like the way many of us approach the holidays.

When I blog, I want to be funny but not crass.  Informative but not boring.  Inspiring but not "out there."  Self-revealling but not self-deprecating.  Optimistic but not saccharine.  Memorable and not only a little bit memorable.

My blank screen is a classic case of too many good intentions coming together to result in nothing good at all:  kind of like mixing all the play dough colors together.  So I remind myself:  Keep It Simple, S…anta.

Last week, I retweeted Gabrielle Bernstein:  "When you think you need to do more, you probably need to do less."

I want to land on the "walkie-walkie" side of the line that delineates the walkers from the talkers.  So, with Gabby's wisdom in mind, I am going to publish this post even though my brain is telling me I need to do more with it, say more in it, be funnier in it, move a couple more mountains with it...and to do so in fewer words.

It's not always easy for me to drop into my heart, but when I do, I know that I am enough.  This post is enough.

That switch--that decision to act from our hearts instead of our heads--that's what the holidays are all about, isn't it?

That's what life is all about.

So when I say I want to simplify this holiday season, what I actually mean is that I want to act from my heart, not from my head.

I think a lot of us feel pressured to "make the most" of the holiday season by crafting like Martha Stewart, baking like Mrs Claus, gifting like Santa, volunteering like Jesus, all the while caroling like Buddy the Elf even though we feel as frazzled as the guy who says "hanging Christmas lights" in the 12 days of Christmas song.

Frankly, I don't think it matters how MUCH or how LITTLE we do for the holidays.  I think that ALL that matters is that we are acting from our hearts and not from our heads.

So if you love craft-wizardry like Martha, then deck those halls, baby.  If you love to cook, then don ye now your gay apparel and BAKE, baby--BAKE.  If gift-giving is your love language and you have the resources, then oh by gosh, by jingle:  knock yourself out, channel Oprah and give EVERYBODY a car.

But if you're giving or decking or baking or crafting because that's what your brain THINKS you "should" do, then please breathe deeply and "think" again.  Listen with your heart this time.  And you'll know whether you aught to finish baking those cookies or just lay on the floor covered in flour and sugar,  eating the batter and pondering where, exactly, Frosty the Snowman GOES when he waves goodbye singing, "don't you cry."

Perhaps an even better holiday mantra than "Simplify, Simplify" might be "From the heart!  From the heart!."

On the likely chance that we FORGET that this is our mantra, I propose that we sing "From the heart!  From the heart!" to the tune of "HEE-HAW, HEE-HAW," a classic line in the "Dominick the Italian Christmas Donkey" song.

That will guarantee that it gets stuck in our heads, at least through New Year's.

Doing less stuff with more light,