Anyone who knows me well will know that I am a great proponent of the wise use of appropriate words as we relate to one another in our daily lives and in all of our relationships. ‘A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver’ Proverbs 25:11.
But there are circumstances in life when we feel compelled to say something and, even as we say it, we recognise it is hollow, meaningless, futile. But we do it anyway. We feel we have to say something. We want to alleviate the pain of the other person, or to share their pain, or at least to show that we care. But sometimes words are worse than meaningless. If they sound hollow to us, how much more so to the person who is hearing them? Sometimes to say nothing is better than to say something.
Like when someone is grieving, we don’t know what to say. In the presence of raw loss, perhaps we are embarrassed. We feel awkward. Or maybe we are frightened, reminded of our own immortality. So we use a trite phrase like ‘I’m sorry for your loss’ (I’m definitely guilty of this) or ‘It’s better for him’. Really? It could well be. We want to believe it. We want to make the other person feel better. We want to make ourselves feel better. But what about the person standing in front of us, devastated by their sense of loss? Their world has come to a standstill. Their hopes and dreams have come crashing round their heads. How can we make them feel better?
Or when a friend receives bad news, like a really serious diagnosis – and we say ‘They can do great things now for that’. Really? How do we know? Do we know? We want to believe it, we want to offer hope – but it’s hollow. We sense we are offering empty words – but we really want to help. Their whole world has changed with a phone call or a letter or a visit to the doctor. We want to make it all OK again. How can we help them?
Or when a loved one has dementia and we say ‘Well, she’s happy, isn’t she?’ Really? Is she? How do we know that? How can we know that? The world of dementia frightens us and bewilders us. We don’t understand it. It is so foreign to our daily experience, so ‘other’, so ‘out there’. We can’t make sense of it, no matter how hard we try. It is heartbreaking to watch those we love withdraw from us into a world unknown, a world where we can no longer reach them, a world from which they emerge only briefly – and often only to tell us things we cannot make sense of. We are losing our loved one and we don’t understand where they have gone. So it helps to think they are happy in their own wee world. And some of them are. Some of them are blissfully content. But others are not. And it hurts to have someone say, ‘She’s content, isn’t she?’ when we know she isn’t, when we can see the fear in her eyes – fear of being left alone, fear of not knowing what’s going to happen next, fear of not remembering the way to the bathroom or the dining room or the bedroom.
So what can we do? How can we show our friends we care? We want to reach out to them, to reassure them that they are not alone, to tell them we love them, to tell them we understand – but we don’t understand. So what can we say? The worst thing is to say we understand when we don’t. The worst thing is to say it will be OK when we have no idea that it will.
Maybe we should say nothing.
Maybe we should just be there for them.
Maybe we should just love them.
Maybe sometimes a hug is worth a thousand words.