Hey, guys. There's this REALLY bad canine influenza going around -- it's highly contagious, infecting about 80% of all dogs who come into contact with it, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. Fortunately, it's rarely deadly; nevertheless, I found myself at the vet this morning for my dog's second vaccination.
After using several treats to lure my dog into the vet's office, I returned to the waiting room, where I heard sobbing coming from outside the building. Soon, a young woman holding a limp, lifeless puppy burst through the doors. The office staff jumped to action... But it was clear there was nothing they could do.
The woman sat down and continued sobbing, sometimes mumbling, "He's dead."
It was so heartbreaking, I had to hold back my own tears -- and I never cry.
But I can absolutely relate to the pain of losing your dog. We've all got baggage, right? Mine is probably losing dogs. These are wounds that are a decade (or more) old, and they still haven't healed. They might never heal... and part of me isn't sure I even want them to. Feeling pain is better than forgetting. And maybe I deserve to feel guilt and sorrow when a photo unexpectedly pops up on Facebook, or when I wake up from a dream in which the dog was still alive.
Seeing her sob and wondering what the journey ahead of her will look like stirred me. I wanted to help... but I wasn't sure how I could. Should I hug her? Put an arm around her? Say something?
I previously wrote For the Love of God, STOP Asking People if They're Okay, and it really resonated with many groups of marginalized and disempowered people. I followed up with Another Reason Not To Ask People If They're Okay: It's REALLY Freaking Rude -- and, later, Unless the Next Words Out of Your Mouth Are Going to be, "Can I Help ___?" Do NOT Tell Me I "Look Tired".
Obviously, none of those articles were written about a situation like this one. But I still wanted to respect this woman's privacy and autonomy -- and I didn't want to somehow accidentally make it worse. With a stranger, it's hard to know how (and how not) to do that.
So I blinked back my tears and sat beside her. I didn't touch her... just sat, returning her gaze when she looked up. Eventually, a nurse came back to tell her there was nothing they could do. They took her into a room to speak with the vet and questioned the bystander who had driven her to the clinic -- who, despite his obvious care and kindness (especially considering he was dressed like he was supposed to be at work and he didn't speak much English), seemed just as confused about what to do next as I was.
What have I done in the past when I saw strangers crying, I asked myself.
I recalled a time when I'd recently started attending this cool church for young adults. I'd only met, like, two people, and was hardly a part of the community yet. After a service, while everyone was socializing and having fellowship, I saw a girl sitting in the corner, crying.
Part of me felt like a "real" member of the community should be the one to do or say something... but no one was. Realizing that you only cry in public when something's really wrong (and that, in this particular public space, there were bathrooms nearby, so if she definitely, absolutely wanted privacy, she could have it), I carefully approached her and asked, "Can I get you a cup of tea?"
"No," she sniffed, and looked away. I took it as a cue to give her some space.
What if I'd not seen, but heard her crying in the bathroom stall? I'd've probably followed Krista Burton's advice:
"If the crying stranger in question is locked in a public bathroom stall, chances are they are in there to have some semblance of privacy and just have feelings for a minute, away from the world. I would leave this person alone to cry, unless it’s quite clear from the sounds coming from the stall that things are NOT OK AT ALL (e.g., loud wailing is happening, or both crying and sounds of bodily distress like puking are issuing forth). That would be the moment for a gentle knock on the door, and a friendly, 'Hi, are you OK in there? Do you need help?'”
In other situations? Most people would do nothing. Only 25% of adults in one study shown pictures of crying adults said they’d comfort the crier. (83% of subjects shown photos of crying babies, however, would help.) But if you're in a public crier situation, here's how you might proceed:
As Ron Weasley once said in the Harry Potter series, "Mum always makes tea when someone's crying."
Which is why, when possible, I offer tea. Drinking tea, I've often said, is like drinking a hug. There's something that's just innately comforting about it. Even just holding something warm in our hands feels good.
If you can't offer tea, perhaps you can offer water. For some reason, water seems to help stop you from crying -- or help you stay in control if you haven't started crying yet. I think it has to do with calming the muscles in your throat, which, while crying, contract and relax somewhat uncontrollably.
Plus, the act of crying or sobbing is actually kind of exhausting. You use muscles in your stomach, throat, and face that you don't always use. You secrete fluids from your eyes. Drinking water during or after crying is a good idea.
Offer a tissue. If you have one, offer it up. If you don't, you can go get one and then offer it -- or tell the person, "I am going to grab you a tissue. I will be right back."
Ask if you can help and/or call anyone. Especially if you think they might be too upset to drive.
Pay attention to your gut. If you don't feel comfortable, get out. I'm all for chivalry, but you need to do what you're comfortable with. You don't owe anyone anything. It's not "rude" to look after yourself. If you get involved in a situation and then realize the person might be less stable than you initially thought, you need to do what you need to do to feel safe.
Listen to the crier. If they say they want to be left alone, leave them alone. If they say they don't want to talk about it, don't press them. Be responsive to their cues.
Ask them what's wrong. You're a stranger. They might not want to tell you. Don't make a bad situation even worse by asking someone to relive a terrible memory or experience more embarrassment or awkwardness by sharing something potentially very private with a stranger.
Help if you're going to. But mind your own business.
Stare. Most public criers are either so upset they can't think about anything but their pain (hence they don't notice or care if you're staring), or they're so out of control they can't help it, even though they're really embarrassed. Do something or don't. But don't stare.
Film or photograph them. Why would you do such a thing?
Back in the vet's office, my dog finished up her appointment -- right after the sobbing girl emerged from talking to the vet about her puppy.
She was just a few steps ahead of me in the parking lot... I could still do something.
BUT. My dog had to be my priority. She's extremely sensitive, and being around a sad person might upset her. Moreover, being around a beautiful, healthy dog might upset the girl who'd just lost her puppy.'
Nevertheless, I decided I would approach her to see if she wanted to get a warm drink with me. I'd've walked with her, listened, done whatever I could. But before I caught up with her, a man she knew arrived, rushed over to her, and wrapped her in his arms.
He held her silently while she wept.
Satisfied that he'd take care of her, I got in my car to get myself a warm beverage... but I continued thinking about public crying. I feel... like my advice leaves something to be desired. But I'm not sure what I would add to the list. I guess because every public crying situation is different.
So I'd be curious to hear what others would do in a similar situation. How do you comfort someone you don't know? Do you get involved? Pretend you didn't notice? Why? Let me know in the comments -- or followThe Happy Talent on Facebook or Twitter.
About the Author
Eva is a content specialist with a passion for play, travel... and a little bit of girl power. Read more >
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