When Your Words Fall Short (what to speak when things get hard)

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.

  1. 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.
  2. If you care about this person, let them know you are support, a resource.
  3. If you really really care about this person, for a moment share their grief, their fear, their joy.
  4. 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.
  5. 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?

Dear God, let my words be few and right

Dear God, let my words be few and right


6 thoughts on “When Your Words Fall Short (what to speak when things get hard)

  1. Pingback: What my friends are exchanging this year instead of presents | start with broken

  2. Pingback: Hard Things but Not Too Difficult | Devo Mom

  3. You’re ahead of me Suz. It takes great discipline to choose a positive attitude or actions when others disappoint or hurt us! This is a good example of great maturity to me! Hard lesson.

  4. Can’t tell you how many times (especially in work situations), after my husband had a stroke, that people would come up to me and cheerily say, “Oh, is Rex feeling all better now?” I’m sure they were pleased as punch to be giving me what they somehow thought was a little ray of sunshine and (in their minds) words of care. I, of course, was feeling beaten up inside and out, exhausted, barely holding it together, and knowing that I was looking ahead to a lifetime of caregiving and many heartbreaks to come. It changed our lives, as I knew it would … as I’d already been nursing my mother through an eerily similar-deficit stroke, two decades earlier. People would say these things to me, and I would just think: What is wrong with them? Are they tone deaf? But I’ve come to accept that so often others just don’t know, and I’m not entirely sure they are capable of knowing, unless a similar tragedy has been visited upon them. And who would wish that on anyone? Honestly, there were times when – had someone really communicated what was clearly a true understanding – I might have totally lost it in a sea of tears, possibly in the midst of a client meeting. But I do applaud you, Jen, in giving some words of wisdom (I especially like #1), to help a person stop for a minute and actually THINK before they open their mouths. But this old lady will also tell you – mostly the only ones who will be truly empathetic are those who already love you and know you intimately (and have some idea of who you are, and what makes you hurt), or those who have actually been there. I will say, though – that when any of us have been through certain of life’s trials – there is probably no greater gift to another than making the effort to help where you know you can help, and provide understanding, when you’ve already been down that road in some way. Don’t even blink, or wonder if you should. Just do it. Because you can bet, for certain, that person will be mostly surrounded by others who are clueless.

    • I think you nailed it here when you said – that in the end those with the best offering are those who care most about you anyway. And you make a good point – maybe people can’t know until they’ve been there themselves. I can be pretty critical when it comes to self-awareness and relational savvy…so that is something for me to keep in mind! Perhaps these ideas for those who are half-way there!

      • I had a small epiphany one day, when I was struggling in a pouring rainstorm to get Rex’s wheelchair through a heavy glass door going into a very popular and crowded bookstore. As so often would happen, the person in front of us was totally unaware of my struggle and about to let the door slam on Rex’s legs. And I don’t know why I did it, but I decided to put a big smile on my face and brightly, loudly, clearly said (and you know, this is so not “me” behavior), “I wonder if you might be kind enough to please hold that door open for us?” Still smiling with all of my might (inside thinking: what is wrong with this jerk?), I looked the guy right in the eyes, so that he could not avert his gaze from mine. And, not only did he hold the door open, but it was clear that he just simply did not even think or consider that I might need him to do us that favor. When he reached out to hold the door open, and we went through, I still had that great big smile on my face, and said “Thank you so much, we really appreciate that!” No irony, no undertones, totally upbeat. And here’s what I realized. This man was so swallowed up in his own world and thoughts that I honestly don’t even think he knew we were there. It was evident on his face thatI made him feel like a hero, and HE was clearly buoyed up by the fact that he did something really nice for someone. It really didn’t matter that I had to tell him how to help.

        This totally changed my mindset, and this moment really became symbolic for me. Not all people are thoughtless, but they often just need to be told what to do, or what they can do to help. I think, in some ways, that is sort of what you are saying with this piece you wrote. And I think all of us, who are facing difficulties of one kind or another, often need to let others know that we just can’t do it all, and “this” (specifics are important) is exactly how they can help. I think it’s also very hard for some people (I definitely qualify; possibly you too) to admit they need help. Sometimes it’s as small as asking someone to hold a door open; other times it’s hugely bigger than that. But we can’t be afraid to ask, whether it be strangers or those whom we know already love and care for us.

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