The Absence of Words

11 04 2012

I’m not sure when I became aware of the concept, but over the years I have learned that there are times when not speaking is a great gift to someone who is suffering. Often our physical presence is all the assurance a person requires.

Have you ever witnessed a well-meaning person with run-at-the-mouth (RATM) disease? That’s the individual who feels compelled to offer words of wisdom or criticism at times when it’s more appropriate to just show up.

Here’s an example: a spouse dies after an especially painful illness. Ms. RATM begins to gush on about the deceased being out of his/her misery, it’s best this way, he/she is in a better place, grief doesn’t last forever, life will be easier now, etc., etc. ad nauseam.
Is this really what the widow/widower needs to hear?

I would like to offer a few thoughtful comments which are more time-appropriate and helpful to those in grief: I’m so sorry. You and your family are in our prayers. I have wonderful memories of him/her. Or just a heartfelt hug. Sometimes no words are necessary.

Another example: someone has endured abuse, either physical or verbal (or both).
Mr. RATM has a lot to say: You’re better off without him/her. You need to get on with your life. Why didn’t you leave sooner? Are you having him/her arrested? He/she really had you fooled, but we could all see it coming. What did you do to make him/her hit you? I told you so.
Helpful comments? I think they do mostly harm.

What you should say instead: I’m so sorry. I will be here for you. I love you. And, sometimes, nothing. Just be there. Offer to help with the children–better yet, call to say you’ll take them for a day. Bring a meal or two. send cards with expressions of support. Don’t judge. Never assume fault on either side–you weren’t there, you don’t know. Your job isn’t to judge, but rather to support.

Another scenario: Someone who is clinically depressed. Never, ever say the following: You need to volunteer. Stop feeling sorry for yourself. Just get over it. Get a job. What’s wrong with you anyway? I’ve never had that problem because I simply refuse to let myself go there. You’re not being strong enough. Where’s your faith?
Don’t ask what you can do–you won’t get a response. But don’t disappear.

So what should you do? First of all, do not ignore this person. He/she needs to know that people care. That means sending cards that convey they are being thought of. It means showing up and just being there. Allow them to speak if they wish, but don’t offer solutions. That’s not what they need, they need an impartial listener. Bring meals. Take the kids for a day. Do the grocery shopping, washing, cleaning, if appropriate. Bring flowers from your garden.

Divorce–he says/she says situations: Don’t say good riddance, what did you do to make him/her leave, you didn’t try hard enough, what are you doing to the kids, whose fault was it, tell me what happened, divorce is wrong, (you fill in the blanks).

What to do: never take sides. Support the person by being a friend. Listen unconditionally. Don’t try to solve the problem, only the person going through the situation can do that. Often that person gets a clearer picture of their situation just by hearing him/herself saying his/her thoughts being verbalized. And remember, sometimes the couple gets back together. If you’ve said derogatory things about the spouse, you may no longer be welcome.

Final scenario (though there are countless more): A child has run away, gotten in trouble with the law, done something terrible, etc. Your children may have turned out wonderfully well. Be thankful. Never judge those parents, or tell them (or someone else) what terrible parents they are, how you would have done the raising so much better, it’s all their fault for doing things the way they did, how they were too strict, or they were too lenient, or they should have known, or walked away in this difficult time.

What you should do: Don’t judge. You’ve not walked in their shoes, nor are you privy to their home situation. If your children have been perfect, give thanks, and remember that can change on a dime. Don’t ignore the parents or their situation. But at the same time, don’t offer solutions unless they specifically ask. Listen, listen, listen. Support them. Call them. Send a thinking-of-you card. Assure them you are their friend. No one is exempt from potential problems with their children; even Billy Graham had problems with his son.

Bottom line: Sometimes words do harm. Compassion is best served when unspoken. Always, always, always, think of the effect of your words before you speak. Remember the adage by the wise little Thumper: If you can’t say something nice (or kind, or helpful) don’t say anything at all.






2 responses

11 04 2012
Rebecca Carney - One Woman's Perspective

Compassion and consistent presence make all the difference in the world! When grief is so deep, that is truly when actions speak so much louder than words!!

12 04 2012
Terri DeVries

Thanks for your comment, Rebecca. We all need educating in how to be more sensitive to the pain of others. I think Thumper had it right.

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