Get well soon! the handwriting said cheerily. I cringed. The card was for someone with terminal cancer, not bronchitis. The note, at best would seem trite. And to me it seemed hollow, hopeless. The card was not for me, but reading the words made my heart sink. Maybe this person didn’t know what to say. But it didn’t excuse the insensitivity. If we aren’t sure what to say, is it better we say nothing?
2013 has seen hard moments. Terminal diagnoses, several deaths, friends struggling with chronic pain and fear of the future. 2013 has had many conversations about hard things. It’s true that words can be inadequate. Sometimes words are not appropriate and a shake of the head, an embrace is what’s needed. Perhaps even silence.
But I think there is room to improve our words to others in hard times. Put away the clichés, the platitudes and Hallmark sayings. Keep your words authentic and simple. One of our biggest mistakes with words is using them to “fix.” (You can’t “fix” the hard things – illness, divorce, loss, depression.) And what usually happens is that we minimize or dismiss another’s pain in the process. i.e. – A friend’s sibling is undergoing treatment for what may be terminal cancer. I heard someone say to her, “Hope your sister feels better soon!”
Are you freaking kidding me?
Hard times reveal what you believe and like best about God. One of my favorite characteristics of God is his steadfastness – his faithful presence. He is the friend who remains faithful from beginning to end – the diagnosis, the initial rush of emotion, the treatments, the waiting. How often do we forget those who struggle long-term? It’s easy to remember, to join the bandwagon when a journey begins. But where are we when that person is half-way through their journey at the point of greatest discouragement? Have we moved on to another crisis?
I’m sure I have failed my friends or family in the past with my words or actions. The older I get, the more I see words fall short and the more I desire friends who do not offer platitudes or clichés, but their tears, their presence, their own brokenness over what has broken me. If you do not have friends such as these, I suggest you find them immediately. You will need them.
I remember one discouraging night following a study with 2 friends. We sat outside on a humid porch during a spring thunderstorm. Between lightning strikes I shared that Brian and I were in a particularly difficult period of our marriage. My friends listened, asked good questions and then prayed for me. And not only did they pray, they cried.
I’ve been loved well in many ways. To have someone shed their tears with me is one of the truest expressions of being loved.
What was it God said about sharing each other’s burdens? Oh yes, do it already.
Which bring me back to words. When you feel tempted to shout a platitude, zip it. If you were in this person’s situation, what would you most like to hear…or not hear? There is no formula in caring for others, but I have a few suggestions to help enrich your words to others. Next time you encounter a hard situation, try one out.
- Acknowledge the shit of the situation. It’s okay to say “I don’t know what to say.” Or “Wow, I’m sorry how hard this is.” Minimizing the situation doesn’t make others feel better.
- If you care about this person, let them know you are support, a resource.
- If you really really care about this person, for a moment share their grief, their fear, their joy.
- Don’t forget what just happened. Remember to follow-up with this person, because you may be the only one who does. Be the Christ in their life who remains a faithful friend.
- If you’re a Christ follower, share who God is. I don’t mean you should offer “everything happens for a reason” or “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.” Have you ever read these statements in the bible? Things do happen for a reason, but sometimes that reason is only because we live in a broken world and tragedy is at hand. The reason is sometimes irrelevant. (God’s providence aside.) Maybe mention how God is able to work beauty from ashes. Or how he is ever present and counts each of our tears. Don’t you want to know that God sees and hears your suffering? Or that God remains the same even as the world changes? Focus more on the character of God and less on what you think God does or doesn’t do.
You will have ample opportunity to try some of these suggestions. I hope your words and actions will be a balm to another.
What words have brought you comfort in the past? Or how did someone care for you in big way when you needed it most?