When You Say Nothing At All

What do you say when there are no words?

Posted Jun 18, 2020

Julia Strait
Source: Julia Strait

On a 98-degree Texas summer day, I sat outside with a friend who had lost her teenage daughter the week before. A few months earlier, I had stared at my phone trying to figure out how to call another friend who was five months pregnant when her husband was killed in a car crash. As I write, I have just learned via text message that yet another friend lost the baby she’s been trying to make for years.

And this past two weeks, as demonstrations against institutional racism have raged on, I have sat awkwardly silent next to friends of color, wanting to say something worthwhile but coming up short.

What can I say in these moments when there are no words?

Every day as a psychologist, I sit quietly and listen as new tragedy tumbles forth from my patients’ mouths, squirming with my own uncertainty about what to say, about whether I can really help them.

I am learning, very slowly, that the words are not important.

I am not choosing to remain silent—far from it. I am learning to speak with my presence. To show up. Bear witness. To simply hold a space, a container, as early psychodynamic thinkers would have called it, for others to experience their pain.

When a friend comes to us in dire emotional pain, we usually feel a strong "righting reflex," an urge to fix it. Our brains see a problem, and we want to solve it.

Tens of thousands of years ago, as we roamed the savanna, survival depended on our ability to kick it up a notch at the first sign that something wasn’t quite right. This has shaped our brains into what Russ Harris calls problem-solving machines.

How do you get rid of problems? Easy, you solve them. And so, the logic goes, you get rid of pain by finding the source and smashing it.

But how often have you come home from work, still ruminating on some off-hand comment or sticky interaction, and complained to a partner or friend about the predicament… only to experience total outrage at their suggestions? Many arguments in my home end this way: “I don’t want you to fix it! I just want you to listen!” Tears, apologies, more tears. And eventually, a hug, or silence. Which is all I probably wanted in the first place.

Offering solutions and resources is called instrumental support. Sometimes it’s definitely needed. Donations need coordinating, meals planned, funeral preparations made. And of course, when there is injustice, we have no choice but to act.

And in addition, sometimes your friend just needs you to be there.

This is called emotional support, and it's crucial for improving the well-being of both giver and receiver. In fact, studies show that even instrumental support should be accompanied by emotional engagement in order to be effective for the receiver. Further, instrumental support may yield much of its positive effects because it communicates emotional meaning.

Given these facts, these are the things I’m learning to do as I sit with people in their pain:

1. Show up.

Just be present, physically (or electronically). I have had multiple patients tell me about dreams in which unidentified others simply sat next to them in a room, and it brought an unexplained sense of calm. We are social creatures. Presence is everything.

How do we make our presence known, particularly from afar? If circumstances warrant at least a few words, make the first move: Ask how it’s going, shoot a simple text, or set up a video chat. It doesn’t have to be in the same room, and it doesn’t have to be fancy. You don’t even have to mention the elephant in the room, the tragedy. Just say, “Hi. I’m here” in whatever way you can.

Be honest about your intention ("I want to help") and confusion ("I don’t know what to say"). In my experience, people appreciate transparency much more than false confidence.

2. Resist the righting reflex.

Resist the urge to take control yourself by turning emotional pain into a more manageable, tangible problem with an identifiable solution. Or by comparing it to your own experiences (now is not the time).

These urges come from our need as helpers to feel control over uncertainty. We want to make pain concrete so that we can visualize more predictable outcomes. We want to smush that pesky heartache just as badly as they do, because it makes us both squirm. You have to be willing to sit with your own discomfort if you want to help absorb someone else’s.

3. Learn to listen.

Deeply, respectfully listen, with your mind hovering over what seems important to your friend—not leaping forward to what it means, how to solve it, what brilliant suggestion you’ll give next, or otherwise.

Instead of advice, listening might be followed by reflecting, validating, and normalizing feelings. Feelings are always understandable, given the circumstances, even if the events that caused them are not. This sentiment is at the core of real empathy. A simple, “I can totally understand why you feel that way” can go a long way in making someone feel less “crazy” or alone.

And although “validation” has become something of a cliché in pop psychology, sending the message that it’s OK to feel what you’re feeling is the very heart of human connection. Trying to problem-solve or force happy onto someone is, likewise, the quickest route to making them feel misunderstood and alone.

As I sat with my friend who had lost her daughter on that sweltering Texas morning, in a courtyard full of people all blissfully unaware, something deep within me started to settle. The longer I drew out the uncomfortable silences, the more she sobbed, and the more she was able to speak, to give words to her pain.

We may have been there for a few minutes, or several hours. I do not know, because for once in my otherwise selfish life, I was able to simply sit. To clear a space and a time for pain to unfold on its own terms. And to be—a human being, not a human doing. To be present for someone else.

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