We do not get handed a script that covers every situation in life, which is a good thing. This allows people to speak from the heart when another is in need of solace and compassion. This also allows well-meaning people to sometimes use words that fall flat or at times use words or actions that unwittingly hurt the other person.
As you read this, I do not want you to feel bad if you have ever said something that some may take to be inappropriate. The person may have felt your sincerity or it may have been meaningful to that person in that context.
Telling someone that you know how they feel is a common statement that shows empathy for suffering. When people are wrought with pain or sorrow, they may think that the other person could not possibly know how they are feeling. It is better to say that you are sorry for their loss or tragedy rather than to say that you know just how they feel.
My heart goes out to a man who shared on-line that only one person expressed sympathy in his congregation when his son died. Why the silence from the others? I do not know. “You cannot not communicate is an axiom,” that I remember from a speech class in college. You may not be sending the message that you intend but silence sends a message. I understand not feeling that you could possibly say the right thing when someone has lost a child or any loved one that has left them bereft. Yet, it is so important to say something and to reach out. I do not fault people who do not feel they can say the right words but it is so vital to let a person know they are remembered.
We can help bridge the chasm between the pain they feel now and the healing that they may experience in days and years to come. Sending a sympathy card, giving flowers, donating to the charity of choice, and taking food to the family may seem like small things but they are ways in our culture that we show that we remember the deceased and pay tribute to their life.
Knowing that I have limitations in helping those in need, I have been touched by acts of service that I have heard about including removing ice to make it safer for a family to attend their loved one's funeral, doing yard work for the family, and doing maintenance free of charge. There are ways to show support by keeping eyes open and looking for opportunities.
At work, I received a call from someone who I think was with a military family who was calling for another woman who had lost her husband. I believe that the caller's organization offers support to military spouses by taking care of details such as hotel reservations for people who need to travel for the funeral.
Parents of special needs children may have feelings about people talking about how noble they are to care for such a child and what special parents they are. They may think that they are doing what any decent parent would do to try to meet the demands of a special need’s child. When someone is overwhelmed and feeling inadequate, they may not find these words to be encouraging. I do think it is appropriate to express belief that all life has value and purpose. If you are able to offer any respite or be on call for a listening ear that can let the person know that they can be honest with you and do not have to be a "super hero."
When someone has a terminal diagnosis or any health condition, one needs to choose their words wisely. I overheard a woman who had battled cancer confide to another who had served over the woman's organization for my church how someone said her thoughts caused her cancer. She promptly responded saying that was wrong and that she would not wish that about herself let alone her worst enemy.
Many who suffer have times of our greatest need when people say words that can make us bitter. When someone has a great understanding or real empathy, it is all the sweeter when contrasted with these non-bitter statements.
I hope that we can all learn to be more sensitive and more caring as we surround those in need with love. We want to let them know that they are not alone!
– population-we™ blog post by Barb Bohan
– population-we™ blog post by Barb Bohan