There are times when words fail us. What do you say to parents who have lost their child? To a friend entering the final stages of cancer? To your neighbor when she tells you she’d getting a divorce because her husband has had a girlfriend for years? Words seem to trivial, so ‘not enough’ at times like that. So what do you say? Some horrific cliché, like ‘This too shall pass?’ Or a Christian cliché along the lines of “God will make all things work together for good’? (and conveniently forget the second part of that verse, which states ‘for those who love Him’—rendering it useless for non-Christian friends).
In the last couple of months, I have found myself in this position. No, not the position of not knowing what to say, but the position of having friends who didn’t know what to tell me. My life as I knew it fell apart and as those around me tried to encourage me, I learned some valuable lessons about the power of words.
Three Lessons on The Power of Words
The main lesson was this: say something. You have to say something, anything. Especially if you know the person well, you cannot stay silent. Silence is killing. Silence makes that person doubt whether your friendship was real, whether what you had was worth anything in the first place. I’ve had people who I thought were friends go completely silent on me when I needed them most and it hurt.
Sometimes people stay silent, because they don’t agree with choices the other makes, or have a strong opinion. I get that, but if you can only be a friend to people who live their lives according to your ways, you have a problem. That’s not friendship. Yes, friends should be able to be honest with each other, but choose your timing wisely. When someone is broken and hurting deeply, I’m just saying you may want to wait a little before sharing your thoughts.
The second lesson I want to share was this: you don’t have to offer something deep and profound in order to make a difference. We so often think we have to solve the problem our friend is facing, or have to make it better, somehow. But we rarely can. We’re not called to fix, we’re called to be present. Trust me, what you say doesn’t matter nearly as much as the fact that you’re there. I don’t remember what all my friends said to me when they reacted to my news, but I do remember who was there for me, who showed me love and compassion. On a particularly crappy day, one of my friends showed up unexpectedly just to give me a hug. It meant the world to me.
And lastly, this: resist the urge to project our own feelings and experiences onto someone else. It comes so natural to many of us, to tell someone what we think they should do (because it’s what we would do under those circumstances), how we think they should handle this (because that’s how we would approach it), or even how they should feel (because we’d be devastated if that happened to us). I’ve had people tell me that I needed to take the time to be angry, when I wasn’t angry at all, or that I should allow myself to grieve, when I wasn’t feeling like that at all. Newsflash: it’s not about you. It’s about the other. You may feel better after dispensing some well-meaning advice, but that’s not the point, is it?
10 Things to Say
After all this, you may wonder what you can say, what you should say. As I wrote before, don’t overthink it. Profound is overrated. Out of everyone who reached out to me, maybe two or three really had something impactful to say—and two of them had been in a similar situation and were speaking from experience. All that matters is that you show your love and support. That’s it. Here are 10 things you can say when you don’t know what to say (and even when you don’t agree with what the other person is doing):
- God loves you and that will never change.
- I love you, no matter what.
- I’m here for you.
- What can I do to help you?
- I’ll pray for you.
- Is there anything practical I can take off your hands right now?
- If you want to talk, I’m here to listen. No judgment, I promise.
- How can I show my support for you right now?
- I am so sorry that you are going through this.
- I honestly don’t know what to say, but I just wanted to let you know that my heart breaks for you.
I guarantee you, each and everyone of these is enough.
What do you say to someone when you don’t know what to say?
If you’ve ever been in my position, what have friends said to you that touched you?
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