Comforting Without Talking
By taylor phillips
February 2, 2010
“Things are going to be okay – you’ll see.”
“This is God’s will.”
“Everything happens for a reason.”
I hate hearing these words.
It has been three months since my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, and two weeks since she underwent a double mastectomy. Out of the dozens of lessons He has thrust in front of me since the evening I learned she has cancer, what not to say sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb. I have swiftly learned what I will try my absolute best not to say to someone with a parent or loved one who is ill or in crisis. These days, individuals seem to feel exceptionally forthcoming with various tidbits of wisdom or advice they feel I need, and it isn’t always an easy pill to swallow. They sometimes fumble with what they should say to me after asking how my mom is doing, and others never miss a beat in offering me their counsel Their intentions, I am convinced, are as pure as can be. Yet it doesn’t always alleviate the sting of their occasionally insensitive remarks.
I recently conducted an impromptu survey among some friends of mine across the globe, asking them what they dislike hearing from others when in a situation that resembles mine. The replies I received were insightful and raw. Overwhelmingly, I learned that assurances from people who are looking on from the outside do very little to make one feel better. Phrases such as, “Everything will turn out okay” especially irritated my friends during their most difficult situations—and I had to agree. As a follower of Christ, I am as much of a fan of hope as anyone else. But what if things don’t turn out alright? The same God who generously gives also takes away as He wills. I cannot fool myself into ignoring that His will may not align with what I so desperately pray will occur. Though I trust His plan wholeheartedly, I can still find myself nervous about the pain I might experience in this life.
Another popular response to my question was dissatisfaction with hearing how one’s current tragedies are not in vain. One friend grew weary of hearing Romans 8:28 quoted to her time and again, though she knew of the truth contained in those words: And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him. Others told me of how irksome it is to be promised that “everything happens for a reason.” I found myself nodding in agreement, for it rarely makes me feel better to think that certain terrible things are supposed to happen.
I’ve been advised several times to think positive thoughts, to be strong for my mother instead of showing my fear, or that this cancer diagnosis of my best friend isn’t the end of the world. Though these and other utterances are surely intended to put things in perspective for me, that isn’t what I’m looking for on the days when I am grieving or unsure what lies in the future. Surely Job felt the same way, as his friends attempted to explain away the reasons for his unexpected suffering and destitution. Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar each had their own opinions on why Job had lost his family, health, and possessions, and on what he should do in the aftermath of such tragedy. Reading through this biblical account, it is painfully clear that their observations and instructions did little to ease Job’s heartache. What likely did offer comfort to Job came in the moments immediately after his friends first learned of his troubles. They wept and mourned with Job, and simply sat with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was (2:13b). What a beautiful example on how the absence of words can often provide the most comfort.
Where does this leave us, then, who will all undoubtedly one day be in a position where someone we know is suffering? Words are not universally unwarranted, but they should be used with the utmost care. If you have an encouraging story of survival, share it with someone while being careful not to belittle a friend’s situation. Be genuine. Be sensitive. Pray with someone instead of saying you’ll pray for him or her later. Ask what you can specifically do to help with practical needs, rather than telling someone you’re available if they ask. Listen. Don’t ask how someone feels unless you’re prepared to hear the answer in a loving way. Don’t feel the need to immediately offer advice or instruction. Don’t make promises you have no way of fulfilling for us. If you feel uncomfortable or don’t know what to say, try to say nothing. Often, the best thing to do is be quietly present.
Taylor Phillips is a junior cross-cultural ministry major at Oklahoma Baptist University. She’s the hippest aunt alive to four nieces, a wannabe domestic guru and a lover of bad country songs.
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