Party Pooper: I love you, let’s try not to judge

Who, who, who didn’t show up? And what to say about it.


I recently attended a party put on by a friend for her mom. No sooner had I stepped into her kitchen than she pulled me aside to say “So-and-so isn’t here. She should be here.” I could tell by the edge in her voice that she was upset.

I wasn’t sure what to do with this.

I was grateful and humbled that she told me. To my way of thinking, it is far better to share a tough emotion—a moment of anger or disappointment—than to stuff it down and pretend that all is well. For me at least, sharing those feelings with a trusted confidante is a big step toward feeling better.

“So-and-so didn’t come and I feel disappointed and angry about it.”

Fair enough.

But then what?

I didn’t want to add to her distress by piling on, by saying “Yeah, you’re right. She should be here. She let you down. She’s a terrible person for not showing up.” That’s not a version of support I want to offer. Why? Because it makes a bad situation worse by fanning the anger, giving it fuel, making it bigger, and then leading it to become all the more ugly and intractable. I didn’t want to do that to my friend, because in my experience, feeling anger, disappointment and righteous indignation feels lousy. So why would I want to add to her feeling lousy?

“I can see why you would feel that way”, I said. “It’s disappointing that so-and-so is not here. I am sure that the guest of honour is disappointed, too.”

Somehow that response didn’t cut it. I was waffling, and that wasn’t going to help. It is tricky territory though. How do you validate someone’s point of view—let them know they are heard—without, at the same time, contributing to their stuck-ness?

Make excuses for the absent one would definitely be a mistake. “Well, I am sure that she had some other obligation that is keeping her away” or “I’m sure she would be here if she could.” That’s not for me to say, not least of all because I have no idea if it is even true. Worse, it minimizes the hostess’ point of view, like patting her on the head and saying “Come now, put your big lady pants on.”

No, no. Not going there.

Besides, it is my job to stay neutral. “I’m Switzerland,” I’ve said to friends who were divorcing.”I love you both.” And I meant it. If I were pressed to define my spiritual point-of-view it would be this: “I love you, and I try not to judge.” And in that one small word — try — lies the work of a lifetime.

So, how the heck do you stay neutral and offer support at the same time?

I’m still working on the answer to that.

I know the first step: I don’t take on her umbrage on as my own. That, in turn, means that I have to get the story straight in my head, and in this case the story goes this: “so-and-so was invited to this party, because she is an important part of this group. She is not here. That’s disappointing because we miss her company. However, the decision to attend is for her to make. For whatever reasons, reasons that we cannot be privy to right nowor maybe, ever she needs to be somewhere else. Hostess, you did your job by inviting her, and we both need to let go of what happens after that. It doesn’t serve us, or her, to feel offended by her not coming.”

That’s kind of a long-winded story, but it works for me.

So now I have the story straight in my head, but then what? Do I explain that complicated reasoning to the hostess?

I don’t think so. Because then I’m climbing up on my soapbox, and that’s not my job either. (I allow myself a soapbox in my writing, but not live and in person. The last thing I need to pull out is a pedestal because I tend to fall off it pretty often and pretty hard. Just ask my daughters.)

Could I say, “Hey don’t we have better places to put our emotional energy? Like being grateful for all the guests who did attend? Like enjoying the laughter, and shared stories and great company, and beautiful food? Such an abundance!” We do tend to miss that and dwell on the fly in the soup. I am no exception.

But no. I don’t want to say that either because—true though it may be—she has to take that step herself. And I know she will. For me to say those words fervently in the moment—because inevitably that’s how it would be, fervent—would amount to distraction, rushing her out of pain. My shoving her in that direction doesn’t help heal the situation.

Probably the best I have to offer is a warm hug and this: “I’m really sorry to hear that. I miss her, too.” And when those words have sunk in, to add: “There’s nothing for us here in dwelling on it. Let’s do what we can to have a great day and to hope she is having a good day.” Okay, maybe that last part is a lot to ask of someone who is feeling let down. I am not proposing that we all run around trying to be saints.

So, what ended up happening? The hostess didn’t mention it again. The party went on and it was beautiful. She appeared to enjoy herself, and I certainly hope that she was able to fully embrace the festive moments as much as I did. If she brings the absentee up again, my ears and mind and heart will be open, and I’ll do my very best to navigate that line: I love you, and let’s try not to judge.

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