When You Don't Know What to Say

Listening is a lot more than nothing.

Posted Aug 03, 2016

There are times in life when we are called upon to be comforting, but words fail us. Not knowing what to say, we don’t pick up the phone or pay a visit when someone we know has suffered a devastating loss or a loved one is enduring an incapacitating illness. We feel guilty about our silence and inaction yet our awkwardness keeps us muzzled.

Traditional cultures almost all have rituals that include specific ways to be in proximity to mourners and that prescribe what to do when visiting the sick. We are losing what we have known, what thousands of years of human experience have hewn into effective and vital practices. Now an endless flow of words goes back and forth on our devices, but what do we give each other in times of aching need?

A friend told me she felt not even a semblance of comfort scrolling through dozens of Facebook responses to her mother’s death. “Sorry for your loss.” “Thinking of you.” Finally, one person actually called her, saying very little but letting her recount the events of her mother’s last days. The relief of this conversation lasted for days. It wasn’t anything her friend said; it was having the chance to tell the stories, to dwell on the details where her cherished moments had gotten interspersed with her regrets.

There are many situations in life when texting or sending a quick email are not enough, when we need to open up our hearts and be there emotionally. By phone or in person, we have to be willing to enter into another’s travail, to feel what is there – not to try to fix it or to say something wise but just to take it in and to trust in the power of this kind of presence.

Wendy Lustbader
Source: Wendy Lustbader

Perhaps silence is only awkward when we don’t have confidence in it. The temptation is strong to fill any silences with quick reassurances, instead of simply being there in someone’s time of need. Usually, a murmur of sympathy, an echo of the pain the person is going through, is enough. “Wow. You’re going through a lot.”

Several years ago, I made weekly visits to a friend enduring the last stages of ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease. He had to type what he wanted to say into a machine that would then speak his sentences. Near the end, he was able to type with only one finger and thus full sentences took quite a while to emerge, so I would gaze out the window into his garden and allow myself to enjoy the beauty of the sunlight on the leaves or to watch the drifting clouds. The last day I saw him, he struggled long and hard to depict the gratitude he felt towards me, saying that when he talked to his wife through the machine she would wash dishes or sweep the floor, as would other visitors. I was the only one, he said, who just sat there and did nothing but listen to him, the way it would be in an actual conversation.

The highly particular aspects of this situation serve to highlight the universal – that someone’s attention when we are suffering is a balm to the spirit. Especially during times of illness and its accompanying vulnerability, we long for the kind of focus that assures us we are more than just a body in need of care, more than the multitude of tasks our dependency generates.

Listening is a lot more than nothing. This is what I chant to myself when I am feeling helpless before the magnitude of someone’s suffering. I think back on awful interludes of my own and how reassuring it was to have another person occupy that desolate place along with me, to sit with me and breathe the same air. At least I wasn’t totally alone. This counts for a lot, sometimes making the difference between a passing crisis and a trauma embedded in the heart.

When I am at a loss for words, I have learned to keep my mouth shut. It has taken me years to honor my speechlessness, to accept that the silence that has befallen me usually means something. If I can’t find the right words, if everything I might say seems trite or widely off the mark, I remind myself that the situation may be beyond words and that this just might be the right time for listening.

I once sat outside a friend’s house and pulled weeds at the edge of her walkway. She was in deep mourning for her husband and didn’t want visitors, but I knew she could look out her window and see that she was loved and supported. It felt good to be out there doing the weeding, dispensing with words altogether.

Copyright Wendy Lustbader. Adapted from: Counting on Kindness: The Dilemmas of Dependency, Free Press/Simon and Schuster, 1991.