What do we say when we don't know what to say? How do we genuinely show care to those we love when they are going through distressing times?
Many of us feel an unwarranted obligation to "fix" the problem. We suggest new doctors and treatments. We offer pep talks. We recommend counselors, books, and sermon tapes. We try our best to keep them from feeling emotions that we perceive as negative.
Some, in response to those who are hurting, resort to speaking fluent "Christianese." We seek to solve their sorrow with spiritual soundbites:
- You can do all things through Christ who strengthens you.
- God is good all the time.
- With God all things are possible.
- When God closes a door He opens a window.
- All things work together for good.
And, the ever popular:
- I'll pray for you.
While those going through painful trials may believe all those words to be true, their traumatized spirits may not be ready to hear them.
So what is a helpful response when people we love are facing soul-wrenching trials? Many times the most helpful, meaningful thing we can say is... nothing.
Hurting friends don't need our words, they need us. By their side. Holding them up. Attuned to their anguish. Receiving their feelings. Listening to their pain. Sharing their tears.
People going through painful circumstances often don't recall the words that were spoken to them. But they forever remember who was there for them.
The story is told of a six-year-old boy whose playmate, a little neighborhood girl, was killed in a car accident. Several days after, the boy's mother was in the kitchen when he came in the back door. She asked where he had been. He told her he had gone to the girl's house to see her mother. Taken aback, his mom asked, "What did you say to her?"
The boy shrugged and said, "Nothin'. I just sat in her lap and helped her cry."
When people experience loss--whether the loss of a loved one, the loss of their health, the loss of their marriage--they will more than likely encounter a number of people who will express their sympathy. But people who are grieving need more than sympathy. They need empathy.
Sympathy acknowledges a person's pain. Empathy enters into it. Sympathy expresses. Empathy encircles.
When we find ourselves in situations where we don't know what to say, perhaps that's God's way of telling us to say nothing. Our presence may speak louder than words ever could.