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I’m lying in bed reading a book about a woman who is terminally ill. She’s telling her therapist that people say the wrong things to her. The therapist asks what she wishes people would say and the woman says, “‘I’m so sorry’ or ‘How can I be helpful?’ or ‘I feel so helpless, but I care about you.’”
I grab my phone from my nightstand and take a photo of this page. I want to save these words for future use.
I think a lot about what to say to people who are suffering because I know so many who are. Some of this is because of the pandemic, but most is due to my age and stage in life. There are so many of us who are dealing with ailing or dying parents, struggling teenage and young adult children or health concerns of our own.
So, whether I’m talking to someone face-to-face, communicating electronically or sitting with a pen poised over an open card, I think long and hard about what to say.
When I was younger, particularly in my 20s, I said clunky, insensitive things to people in despair, utterances like, “It will be okay.” Now I know better. What if it isn’t okay? And who am I to know? Now I’m more apt to say, “No matter what happens, I’ll be there for you.”
I also remember a time in my youth, when I said some version of “it’s a blessing/for the best/she’s better off” to a friend whose mother, who seemed old to me then, had died. We were good enough friends that he called me on it and said it wasn’t helpful.
Now, way past the half-century mark, I am more seasoned by loss, so I’ve become a better editor of myself. I’ve learned to simply offer, “I’m sorry” and then stop talking.
I’ve also learned not to weigh in with advice. Any words of support that begin with, “Have you tried. . .” are generally useless. A few years ago, someone wisely told me that it’s best to view the other person as the expert in her own experience. I try to catch myself and remember that I don’t know more about a friend’s difficult situation than she does.
Despite my improved awareness of the right and wrong things to say, I wonder if I still deliver some duds.
I often use the word “Godspeed,” which sounds deeper and warmer to me than “good luck.” But maybe it has too much of a religious overtone.
Recently, one of my sisters and I were on the phone discussing someone we know who is hospitalized because of Covid.
“There’s so much on Facebook about praying for him,” my sister said. “As if that does anything! I hate it when people talk about prayers.”
I made a mental note not to use “Godspeed” with her.
It occurs to me, though, that while words matter — and they do, particularly because the wrong words can cause irreparable harm — I might be overthinking how important they are in conveying sympathy and support.
When I examine my own life, I realize I can’t remember specifically what people — family, friends, neighbors — said to me when I was sad or in trouble. I only know that they constantly checked on me, brought me food, sat beside me and made me feel loved.
I’m sure I’ll continue to file away words and phrases that sound supportive and meaningful. But when I find myself ruminating over what to say to someone who is hurting, I’ll try to remember that it’s hard to screw up kindness. When it’s sturdy and real, it’s hard to screw up love.