The reason we never say “I Know How You Feel” in response to someone else’s reaction to a death, a divorce, or any other loss, is because you can never actually know how someone else feels. Even if you have had a similar experience, you still bring your unique self and your individual personal knowledge, opinions, and emotions to the event or the relationship that has caused the feelings. Where it becomes obvious that we don’t really know how others feel is when people are grouped under the heading of a particular loss. For example, if you take a group of widows or widowers and have them interact, the false assumption is that they would know how each other feels because they’ve had the parallel experience of having a spouse die. But what if one widow had a warm and fuzzy, loving relationship with her spouse who died, and another had a stormy, tempestuous alcoholic relationship with her spouse who died? Now what do they have in common? Only the fact that they each had a spouse die. Clearly the feelings that the warm and fuzzy widow carries forward after the death of her spouse will be different than the widow who had the stormy relationship.
Every Relationship Is Unique—There Are No Exceptions!
Here’s where it gets tricky. Even if you take two widows, both of whom had warm and fuzzy relationships with their spouses, do either of them know how the other feels? Still NO! Why? Because every relationship that has ever existed between people is unique. And even though there may be some similarities and parallels, emotionally and in other aspects, each relationship remains unique.
Saying “I Know How You Feel” Negates Uniqueness and Robs Dignity
Throughout our 35 years helping grieving people, we have had a tremendous amount of feedback from thousands of people whose lives were affected by the death of someone important to them. A huge percentage of those people have told us that of all the unhelpful comments they heard following the death, the most hurtful one was, “I know how you feel.” And even though they knew that the person saying it meant no harm, they still felt hurt. Without any prompting from us, many of them said that the comment caused them to feel robbed of the dignity of their particular and unique relationship with the person who died. Some of them were referring to a spouse who had died, some to a parent, some to a child, and others to a variety of different relationships. Another complaint we’ve heard from grievers is that when someone says “I Know You You Feel,” it’s as if the conversation has shifted and is now about the other person and again they feel robbed of their unique response to their loss.
The Confusion and Difference Between Feeling Misunderstood and Knowing How Others Feel
Part of the confusion about parallel events and feelings comes from what happens to us after someone important to us dies. Many of the people around grievers avoid them thinking they “need their space.” The griever however, interprets that avoidance to mean that people don’t want to be around them if they’re sad. Others, even though they know that someone important to you has died, will talk to you but never mention the person who died, thinking they are protecting you from feeling bad. Sadly, that tends to make you feel worse because what you most want to talk about is what happened and your relationship to the person who died. When you put people who’ve had parallel experiences together and they start comparing notes, they accidently form the idea that the others know how they feel. The bond of being a griever in a society which doesn’t deal well with grief and grievers is an understandable connection but really doesn’t correlate to the uniqueness of individual relationships.
What Can You Say When You Identify With Someone Else?