Monday, February 1, 2016

I 8 Monday—What to Say When There Are No Words


Last week I read online about a family tragedy someone I know has been dealing with, a hardship that would make anyone who’s ever stressed over a dinner menu embarrassed beyond belief. My
heart leapt toward this woman and what she’s been going through. I began to imagine what she might possibly be feeling, with no real success. Only a strong attempt to understand. I spent time reading the reactions to her beautifully written, vulnerably raw post. Mostly, I felt incredibly thankful for the lack of judgment I encountered in the comments.

Which sadly, led me to several times of struggle in my own life where people shot off some incredibly stupid things. Specific incidences come to mind. In the aftermath of my miscarriages. When my family received news my sister’s tumor was malignant. But one of the worst “warnings” came when I visited a drug rehab as a sixth grader, in effort to help my older sister on her road toward recovery. One of the counselors looked right at me and said I’d end up just like my sister. (P.S. Hey Clueless Counselor from the late 80s, I am like my sister in creative and risk-taking ways. I did not turn out just like her in the heartbreaking addictions she’s suffered. Thanks for the vote of confidence. Did wonders for my sixth grade psyche.)

All this to say, I’ve come to learn there are ways to handle situations where few or no words suffice better than impulsive ramblings. Words will never cure a tragedy. But timely, discerning words, spoken with wisdom, can provide unexpected encouragement and a balm to the soul.

What To Say When There Are No Words

  1. Love. Express your love for the person. So much is communicated in that one word. Often, you don’t need to bookend that word with anything. It’s strong on its own.
  2. “I’m sorry you’re going through this.” Saying this evokes empathy and indicates that you care. It’s simple, but it can speak volumes.
  3. “How can I be there for you?” People feel loved during times of hardship in different ways. A meal might be perfect for one person and repulsive to another. Some people need time to cry by themselves, while others need to know they can wipe their snotty nose on your sleeve and you won’t judge them.
  4. Don’t feed them an answer for the unexplainable why. This one is more what not to say. Bite your tongue before you spill off a list of reasons why this tragedy might be happening. I got my share of these after the miscarriages. Not a single one comforted, encouraged, or made me feel at peace with my situation. Mostly, when people spouted off their guesses as to why I lost my babies I felt like they had some insider information I didn’t. I’ve grown more comfortable with leaving questions unanswered, at letting that be part of my journey.
  5. Validate the hurt. There are unique ways to do this. Avoid saying things like “I know exactly how you feel...” Instead, focus on them and how the circumstances might be impacting their life.
  6. “You are not alone.” Again, not the time to share a long story about how your Aunt Betty also got cancer and is now in complete remission. But…I do think there’s value in letting someone know they’re not alone. Certain situations can feel extremely lonely. This reminder, at a thoughtful time, can provide wonderful comfort.
  7. Something. There’s the temptation to keep quiet, to not say anything out of fear you’ll say the wrong thing. I get it. I’ve said plenty of screwball things in my life, meaning well. But avoidance communicates the message that this great sad thing they’re going through isn’t important to you—that you have too much going on in your own life to bother to reach out.
  8. Nothing. Wait, what? I know, I know. I just suggested to say something. But there’s a difference between saying any old thing and saying something well-timed and thought out. Just as there are seasons for everything, I truly believe there are times to just close your mouth and reach out your arms for a hug. Or times to pass on a letter. Or, as one child did so memorably for me following a long season of darkness, to extend out a handful of yellow daffodils. 

Hmm. I was only planning on whipping up a quick little post. Guess I had a lot to say on the subject. ;-)


*A huge shout-out thanks to Carrie, for you know what. 

12 comments:

  1. This is so spot-on, Wendy. I think most of us have good intentions and poor delivery. Thanks for always having the right thing to say!

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    1. You're kind, Jill. I've had plenty of times when I've second-guessed how I've handled things. Learning as I go.

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  2. Reference to your earlier age. I had a boss tell me around age 13 I would end up like my mom married multiple times. How wrong he was. I've been married for over 40 years to the same man.
    Unfortunately we don't always know how to respond to other's tragedies. Great advice.

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    1. Hi Daphne, Thanks for your comment. My parents weren't happy with that counselor. Throughout my life I've had to make choices about which path I wanted to take. I'm grateful for where I am. I also have a long way to go.

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  3. Very good post!
    A cousin of mine who lives abroad has recently lost her younger sister. I cannot be by her side, hugging her. So I used nr.5 writing to her that I know what she's going through (I lost my brother),and at the same time putting in words of encouragement and confidence in her ability to cope with the situation.

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    1. Duta, The way you've handled your cousin's loss sounds extremely thoughtful and I'm sorry about you losing your brother.

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  4. Wendy: Sometimes our presence speaks our words for us. We learn what not to say or do as we mature in our faith.

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    1. That's it, maturity. Sometimes I feel like I'm so, so close. Other times I'm certain there's a lot more walking down that road.

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  5. So true. I've been through very difficult times. It always amazes me how people feel the need to explain the unexplainable. It's not helpful folks. It's really not. Thanks for this list. I hope someone who needs to read this does and maybe others will be helped. And my heart goes out to you. All the very best this year. I Am very sorry for the stuff you went through and the pain. Hugs.

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    1. Really moved by what you wrote, Tabitha! It's so great to see your comment, as I remember you in the blogging world. And that's it...explaining the unexplainable. And sheesh, some of the explanations people came up with...pretty twisted stuff. Anyway, so thankful for your comment and for you.

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  6. Thank you for this nice post Wendy. We have survived several kinds of loss including wildfires and deaths too. So hard. I love your frank comments. Don't you wish you could just hand this out when you're in a difficult phase of life? I'd like to repost this to my followers as I write about resilience and fiction for tweens with that theme too. Best to you in healing and blessings too.

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    1. Thanks so much, Elizabeth. I appreciate the repost and hope it helps. My mom and I have such great discussions about resiliency. Glad you stopped by!

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