On my morning commute last week, an interesting radio conversation about grief and consolation made me turn up the volume. The co-hosts of one of my preferred morning radio programs were discussing what we say to our friends who are dealing with emotionally trying, tragic circumstances.
One of the hosts said that he dealt with a difficult personal issue a few years ago. He described conversations he had with friends who wanted to offer their support and condolences, and he said, “Most of them told me, ‘I’m so sorry. I don’t know what to say to you.’”
And then the host made a particularly interesting comment: “Then my friends opened their mouths anyway — and that’s when I wished they had never said anything in the first place.”
I’ve certainly been on both ends. When I attempt to give my grieving friends comfort or insight, too often I walk away feeling as if I’ve failed. My words are balloons that have come untied, or antiseptic on a burning wound. I long to help — and stumbling over my words, confused over what angle I should take, I feel a miserable failure.
How many of us have admitted that we have nothing comforting to say, and then turned right around and scraped together some kind of awkward, unhelpful comment? Why is it that we feel we must speak, and why do our words so often harm the mourner?
Whether our losses have been large or small, most of us understand how kind and comforting the presence of a friend feels in the midst of grief.
I remember when my grandfather died unexpectedly. I got the call from my parents while I was at my freshman college roommate’s house. My cell phone had no coverage in that tiny Michigan town, so my dad had called my roommate’s parents’ house. My roommate’s mother looked concerned as she handed me the phone. She didn’t walk away.
When I’d heard the news, my roommate’s mother immediately pushed a box of tissues my way and went to the stove to pan-fry French toast, handing me a plate with a fork ready to go. I remember as I cried and took bites of that syrup-drenched bread, she told me stories of when she lost her grandfather. The kindness was real; the words were well-intentioned. Yet I can’t remember anything she said, nor was I comforted by any of it. What lingers is that memory of the French toast, her maternal presence, her action in my grief.
Life’s tragic occurrences pop up more often than we would hope in the lives of the people we love. Yet few people have mastered the art of responding well to heavy news. We’re simply not all trained in the art of listening. Professional counselors and psychiatrists are the ones who know how to listen and what is most helpful to say in response. They understand what kinds of comments a grieving person will receive as helpful, and likewise, the type of comments that will sting, irritate, and fall flat.
I spend a lot of time in the car with nothing to do except steer and soak up radio waves. After I listened to the radio host say “I wish they had never said anything in the first place” so bluntly, I pondered his response. Was it too harsh to react to his friends this way? Did he have a right to request his friends’ silence, like the Biblical character of Job? Job endured endless words from his three unhelpful friends in the midst of losing everything.
A few days ago, I received news that a friend is dealing with deep, debilitating depression that has left her hospitalized. I haven’t talked to this friend in a long time, nor am I geographically close or able to do anything, really. Should I offer possibly unwanted words? What to say when there’s nothing to say?
There is a time to speak and a time to remain silent. The radio host needed that silence desperately. I cannot do anything else for my friend, thousands of miles away from her anguish. Speaking words into her grief is my only contribution when I have no physical presence to give. All else is the silence that lacks any presence at all.
Eventually, I sent a short email — words that I know won’t fix her problem. I’m aware that they’re not helpful. But when I cannot provide physical presence or French toast, I find myself needing to do something. Is that why we all are so prone to opening our mouths in these circumstances – because we have this human need to help the healing?
She may not even open it. She may not want or need to hear my attempts to be there for her. All my words will do is symbolize my love and my awareness of her sorrow and provide a type of presence.