Live United: Help us help others through difficult challenges of life

Published 8:45 pm Friday, June 28, 2024

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Live United by Erin Haag

My daddy wasn’t in the best of health when I was in my teens and early twenties. It’s been 18 years this week, and I miss him every day. Once, he was in the hospital and his oldest brother came to visit. I remember my uncle taking lots of pictures, and I struggled to understand why. To be honest, I was almost angry at the camera. I didn’t want to document this, I didn’t want to act like this was a normal get together. Years later, I moved to Minnesota, and the trips with two babies began. My uncle encouraged me to stop at his house about halfway and rest for the night. Through those visits, we forged a relationship that was based on who we were as people, not just the family connection, and he became our loved Uncle/Papa Bill.

Erin Haag

With my son, I’ve spent a lot of time in hospitals. I’ve forged deep bonds with the nurses that shared their caregiving skill, their friendship and their heart. I came across a photo that was taken by a photographer. It showcased three nurses with their backs to the wall, side by side. Each one of them was crying into their hands. The photographer was arriving on site for a photoshoot of a stillborn baby. She described those nurses as our broken-hearted heroes. My sweet baby is a thriving 9-year-old now, but that photograph has stayed with me all those years. The raw grief, the story of being the professional hero, that will cry tears for us in the hallway, in the elevator, in their car — it’s absolutely true. They are our broken-hearted heroes.

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Why do people document these hard times? A photographer friend of mine volunteers for the photoshoots for still births. She shared with me that she enjoys taking pictures of the difficult moments, because it’s during times of transition that their true character shines through.

I’ve been sitting with that statement for a while, letting it ruminate around in my heart late at night when I’m still awake, when I really should be sleeping. I think about my uncle, who wisely recognized that family should be documented and remembered — even if it’s a family photoshoot at a funeral, or brothers at a hospital bedside. I certainly have pictures in my mind of those difficult moments — those defining moments, that recognition of someone’s true character. I think about how difficulties can forge a strong friendship, a rock-solid marriage, test our mettle and we come out through the other side.

While this concept obviously speaks to me, it also niggled at me a little bit. Because … what if we don’t handle those difficult moments well? As a society, we revere those who handle challenges with grace, with humor, with a “can-do” attitude. We applaud them, celebrating their worthy character, share their stories and admire them. If we don’t handle something well —if we snap, or are rude, abrupt, it’s all too easy to get written off. So does that mean that the true character is shown only in that moment? I’d like to think that we are more nuanced and multi-faceted than that. More than one thing can be true at the same time. Can you believe in the good heart and good intentions of a person, even when they’re not doing the right thing? I certainly think so.

At United Way, we’ve had some difficult conversations centered around how to best handle people who might not be handling a difficult moment well. For example, a phone call might be full of hyperbole. “I called weeks ago, and no one has returned my call!” Or a complaint of how long a person has to wait before it’s their turn. One thing that I’ve encouraged my team to do is not apologize. It’s easy to automatically say, “I’m sorry.” Instead, we practice being firmly kind, with facts. “Oh yes, I see here that you called last night at 10 p.m. We return calls within 24-48 hours, so that’s why we haven’t returned your call, we’re still working down the list! Thanks for understanding!” Or a response to “Let’s see if we can figure this out. I show that the last five times you’ve shopped has been either earlier or right on time. Could you help us understand what the issue is?” To be determinedly cheerful, factual and behave as if of course you’ll understand our position seems like such a minor change, but one that my team has reported seeing a difference with. Over time, the grumpy, abrupt people realize that we’re holding to our boundaries, solving their problems within those set boundaries and the personalities seem to change. Let me make this part clear: It’s not only shoppers. It’s colleagues, volunteers, shoppers, donors — any community member.

If you think that you might have what it takes to be incessantly kind in the face of someone who might not be handling a difficult moment with grace, we are actively recruiting and training volunteers. It’s not as scary or draining as you might think, because the moment that there’s the mental shift, and you’ve eased someone’s worry, frustration or difficult moment, it gives you a lift. A mama came in with her little boy and shared with Krissy she felt ashamed to be here. Krissy built the relationship, and walked through the pantry with this mama. Her son saw my son, and they forged a quick relationship, with the little boy obviously looking up to the cool older boy. I gained some street cred when the little boy realized I was that cool boy’s mama. When Krissy shared how it uplifted her to connect with the mama, her whole face softened, and the true joy shone through. Those moments are what fuel us.

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Erin Haag is the executive director of the United Way of Freeborn County.