What To Say When There’s Nothing To Say


What is the proper response to someone who is walking through grief, hardship, sorrow, or any manner of tragedy?

A word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver. Proverbs 25:11 (NIV)

When my dad was diagnosed with cancer, he felt it would be best to have his treatments in Atlanta. I can still recall his face as he fixed his eyes on his home as we drove away. The atmosphere in the car was overwhelmingly sorrowful. I couldn’t even look at my dad without weeping. I wanted to be strong. But I wasn’t. I drove my dad to Atlanta knowing his heart was in Chattanooga.

I earnestly prayed God would allow me to take him back to the home he loved, but only one month later, God took him to his Heavenly home. The day after his funeral, a dear friend called to express her sympathy. She said, I know you are so broken-hearted over the loss of your dad. I was devastated when my dog died. I was shocked to think she was comparing my grief over the death of my dad to her grief over the death of her dog. But over time, I discovered her relationship with her dog was more loving than the relationship she had with her own father. My friend’s words came from a caring heart. At the time, however, I didn’t have a dog, nor did I want one. I wanted my dad back!

How do we express our love with minimal words when someone we know receives devastating news? Words can be cheap, but tenderness is costly. I don’t know of anyone living in this world who has escaped receiving devastating news. Let’s face it—this isn’t heaven. Our story will most likely include a chapter dealing with a life-threatening diagnosis, a divorce, a death, a prodigal child, a financial crisis, or overwhelming circumstances. How do we enter into another’s crisis with sensitivity knowing how to love them and when to pause for silence? What could we possibly say to make things better when all we have to offer are words?

These questions make me think of Job and his friends. Job’s friends came to him after hearing his devastating news (Job 2:11-12). Instead of being a comfort, they added more misery to Job’s already miserable life. We can learn much about what not to do from Job’s friends, but where can we learn what to do? In Margaret Feinberg’s book, Fight Back With Joy, she takes the reader alongside her as she fights breast cancer. I personally hate cancer. I have walked with my parents, my sister, and many others whom I adore as they fought—continue to fight—cancer. Each person fought his or her cancer diagnosis with joy. I continually fought back tears as I read Margaret’s book, not because of cancer, but because of my prideful thinking. My pride led me to believe I could share words to lessen someone’s pain as they walk through adversity. For the first time, I realized kind, loving, sensitive, or encouraging words have no power to put a broken heart back together.

As Margaret reflects on her journey, she discovers the most meaningful, powerful thing to offer someone suffering is your presence, not your words. I strongly suggest this book! After reading Fight Back With Joy, I wanted to call everyone I know and love to apologize for appearing insensitive or offering cheap words in the midst of their pain. I’m trying to learn to keep my mouth shut and my heart and ears open since I know I can’t change anyone’s circumstances. What I can do is mourn with those who mourn, walk with those who stumble, and offer love to those who feel hopeless. 

If someone you love is walking through grief, hardship, sorrow, or any manner of tragedy, express your love by first talking to Jesus about him or her. Ask Jesus to do what you cannot do—a miracle! And then know this: your physical presence, presented in silence, may be the most powerful message they hear.

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