A friend of ours has gone through unthinkable hardship in recent years. In fact, this hardship is so massive and so devastating that, when I see this friend, I really have no idea what to say.
And so the temptation is to avoid the conversation. To say nothing. Don’t ask. Don’t call up the emotions. Don’t touch the nerve-center that is so sensitive.
After all, what can you say? Is there any right or helpful thing to say? When there are no words to adequately comfort or help with such massive injustice and loss, is there anything you can say? It’s so intimidating. It’s so complex. It’s so overwhelming.
To have a surface conversation and avoid the “elephant in the room” seems insensitive. To bring up the hardship and ask questions also seems thoughtless and perhaps even invasive. To ignore or avoid the person altogether would be unloving and inhumane.
What do you do?
Well, after being tempted to be silent, be surface, or be unseen… I prayerfully chose to speak. I didn’t know if I should. But the worst I could be accused of is “caring.” To put it mildly, the response was not only convicting, it broke my heart.
I first asked, “How are you doing?” I really wanted to know. But I was so afraid of opening a wound, bringing tears, or being perceived as invading privacy. I was right—I opened a wound. Tears came almost immediately, but not for the reasons I expected. I immediately apologized, paused, and then just decided to say it as sensitively as I could—“Your situation is so complex, so painful, so hard—I don’t know if I should even ask or say anything… and then I don’t know what to say.”
The response is what hit me so hard.
“Nobody asks.” More tears, pause, then more words, “It’s so complicated and intimidating, that nobody wants to ask and nobody knows what to say—so they avoid me.”
This was a secondary hurt—over and above the hardship. The secondary hurt was that God’s people (those meant to be God’s grace and love) were so afraid to say the wrong thing, that they choose to say nothing.
How should we respond to that person who is enduring unspeakable hardship or pain?
When you don’t know what to say—say it. “I don’t know what to say.” Just come clean with a caring spirit. “You trial is overwhelming to my mind, and I don’t know if I should even tell you this—but I care about you. I just don’t know what to say…”
When I was sick, I faced a lot of people who didn’t know what to say. Their day was happy and fluid until they rounded a corner and bumped into me. Then it was like—Uh-oh… no happiness allowed… you’re the dying guy. Sudden sad face, somber attitude, and a depressed but sincere and well-meaning, “How are you doing?”
Everybody meant well, but it was awkward—for them. My way of helping was usually to try to make them laugh. I felt bad for them. I wanted to say, “It’s ok—your joy and health and vitality strengthens me in my trial. Be grace. Be strength. Be joy. Be laughter. Be a bright spot. Don’t ignore my trial, but don’t pity me either.”
Teenagers were GREAT at this. Teens process hardship with laughter more than tears. So they laughed with me, at me, and all around me! We had a great time together. They joked about my baldness. I joked about my chemo-brain. We even joked about dying. (Strange, I know.) But those teenagers brought life and strength into my trial—literally and physically.
You know that first feeling of stepping into the sun on a warm summer day? That moment when your body immediately begins soaking in the warmth and energy of the sun’s rays? That’s what it’s like spiritually when you are in a deep trial and someone chooses to be appropriately joyful and radiate grace in your presence. You soak it up. It’s God’s joy and grace flowing through His people to His hurting child.
When you don’t know what to say, just say it, “I don’t know what to say.” Then be grace. Be normal. Love, laugh, live and bring a hurting person along with you.
Don’t listen to the temptation to avoid the difficult conversations. That only layers hurt on top of hurt.
When you don’t know what to say, say so.
And that will probably mean more than you know!