What to Say When You Don’t Know What to Say
I recently heard about a new line of “empathy cards” that say what sick people really want to hear. The creator, Emily McDowell, remembers what it was like to face cancer: “You start to feel like you are only cancer, but I am the same person as I was yesterday before I got the news….Our culture doesn’t do a very good job of preparing us to be present for other people’s suffering and pain. Our culture is very afraid of those kinds of emotions.”
She remembers that many of her friends drifted away. She felt like they didn’t care about her; but as time passed, she realized that they simply didn’t know what to say.
Here are a few of her favorite expressions. You can find more at:
I promise never to refer to your illness as a journey….unless someone takes you on a cruise!
I’m sorry you’re sick….I want you to know I will never try to sell you on some random treatment I read about on the internet.
When life gives you lemons, I won’t tell you a story about my cousin’s friend who died of lemons.
One more chemo down! Let’s celebrate with whatever doesn’t taste disgusting.
McDowell’s candid humor started me thinking about some of the insensitive comments I have heard since my own diagnosis. The most common response involves listening to a story about a friend or relative who has cancer. I often wonder what the motive is for sharing these stories or if it’s just the first association that comes to mind as people try to relate to my situation.
Others try to relate to chronic pain by telling me elaborate stories of their own experiences with back pain. It is never helpful to say, “I understand” unless we have walked in the others’ shoes. Even then, we all experience things differently. Instead, say: “I can only imagine what you’re going through. Tell me more.”
Speaking truth from scripture, such as “Everything happens for a reason,” or “God has allowed this for his purposes,” can seem simplistic and dismissive. Such comments halt any meaningful conversation because even though I agree with the sentiment expressed, my feelings, questions and experiences are anything but simple.
I realize that even insensitive comments are made with good intentions to relate and to “share my burdens” and I’m grateful that people continue to reach out to me.
But what can we say that is helpful, honest, and encouraging when someone we love is suffering?
Speak “…only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” (Eph. 4:29)
How can you tell if someone needs to talk about their pain or needs a distraction? ASK! Offer an invitation for conversation, giving freedom to accept or decline: “I’d like to hear about your treatments and how you’re feeling IF you’d like to talk about it. If not, we’ll talk about something else.”
If you are comfortable, ask if the person would like to pray with you. Coming before the throne of grace together, with or without words, can be reassuring. It is more meaningful to hear my name lifted up to God than just to be told that someone is praying for me – but both are welcome! Consider sending an occasional card or email with an encouraging verse or expression that you are remembering the person in thought and prayer.
One thing I have learned through spiritual direction is that people want to be heard. They want a safe place to tell their own story. Rarely is it helpful for me to insert my own experiences. Listening without interruption or comment is a rare and precious gift. If you don’t know what to say, say nothing. Listen.
Being present to God and to one another is our greatest need and desire. Cancer can be a lonely journey. I am comforted that others want to understand and walk with me wherever the path leads. I take solace in knowing I am not alone. I don’t seek answers so much as presence from my companions.