When you don’t know what to say

Psalm 147

He told me about his wife, about her kidneys not behaving, her liver calling it quits and her heart not being strong.

They had dared to throw out the word ‘hospice’ in one of those foggy discussions with doctors where you’re hearing them and you’re nodding your head, but really the words don’t make sense.

On the phone, I heard how ‘hospice’ made him stumble.  He sucked in his breath and cleared his throat. Then he said how his brother is already there, in hospice–(there he said it again; that word never seems to come out easy).

I had this conversation with my grandfather years ago, and as I listened I thought of my grandmother, spunky and life-filled, always in tennis shoes so she could speed-walk everywhere, always talking about trips to Haw-a-ii and cruises to Alaska and other adventures.

Then I thought of her in the hospital, under 100 pounds, so fragile.

Two irreconcilable images, surely not the same person.  Yet, there it was, unreal but real.

My grandfather said, “I’m fixin’ to be an orphan here soon” and laughed a kind of nervous giggle when you make a joke that isn’t truly funny.

What to say to that?

After years of women’s ministry, I’ll tell you what never gets easy—knowing what to say when it’s all spilling out of someone and you just want to rescue them, but you’re powerless to do little more than hug and slip on a few Band-aids, then pray with desperate cries that God will heal in the deep-down ways we can’t.

Lost jobs, unfaithful husbands, abusive spouses, alcoholism and pornography, runaway kids, bankruptcy, rape, homelessness, pregnancy unplanned and unwanted, pregnancy wanted so bad it hurts every month with that negative test, abortion, custody battles gone wrong, parents not talking to kids and kids not talking to parents, divorce, fatigue, dying moms and dads, babies in caskets, surgeries failing and car accidents turned tragic…

This…. never…. gets …..easy.

How can there be the right words for so much that is wrong?

Maybe that’s exactly the point.

Maybe even a lover-of-words like me has to fess up that sometimes words don’t just fall short, they actually get in the way.

Like for Job, sitting among ashes, wearing torn rags, scraping at the burning blisters on his flesh with broken pottery, mourning his servants, grieving his children.

Scripture tells us:

When Job’s three friends… heard about all the troubles that had come upon him, they set out from their homes and met together by agreement to go and sympathize with him and comfort him. When they saw him from a distance, they could hardly recognize him; they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads.  Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him because they saw how great his suffering was (Job 2:11-13).

They spent a week in silence with Job.  For guys who turned out to be so chatty (okay, verbose), this was actually a promising start!

They seemed to get this right, this friendship without words.  Just mourning with those who mourn and leaving it at that.

Unfortunately, Eliphaz eventually asked the question: “But who can keep from speaking?” (Job 4:2) and that’s when it all went awry.

He erupted with spiritual cliches, the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” speeches, theological debates and judgmental accusation…and the other friends joined in.

Ezekiel the prophet, on the other hand, “came to the exiles who lived at Tel Aviv near the Kebar River.  And there, where they were living, I sat among them for seven days–deeply distressed” (Ezekiel 3:15).

For a week, the prophet crouched in the dust with the exiles from Jerusalem, those who had been carried off after years of starvation and the siege by the Babylonian empire.

And he stayed there until God told him to get up and move on (Ezekiel 3).

Sometimes we back away in fear from those in pain, not really knowing what to do.  After all, we can easily say the wrong thing.

But you really can’t mess up listening.

God brings hurting people to us not so we can fix life for them or speak some magical words that make it all better.

He wants us to get down in the dirt where they’ve fallen, love them, pray with them, serve them, and practice the power of presence (maybe even presence without words).


May I recommend this book if you are grieving the loss of someone or ministering to another who is mourning?  It is lovely and full of practical advice and spiritual encouragement. Grieving God’s Way: The Path to Lasting Hope and Healing by Margaret Brownley

4 thoughts on “When you don’t know what to say

  1. Kim Dean says:

    Thanks Heather, our family has suffered some crazy loss recently and dealing with that has been really tough. Thanksgiving this year is going to be … not sure I can get that book and read it in enough time but it will be a good place to start. Some family members will not be joining us as the grief is just too much “they say they have nothing to be thankful for and can’t stand to be around anyone who chooses to celebrate”. So much sadness and anger. The hard part for me is that it is directed at God mostly. In July we lost my brothers son he was 27 years old. It was a minor car accident after getting checked out at the ER he had whip lash and a minor concussion. My sister in law left him to rest and went to check on him later and he was gone… his injuries were much worse then they thought. This is all coming on the heals of loosing my sisters son at 28 years old March of 2013. None of us had recovered from that… He simply went upstairs to go to bed and fell down the stairs hitting his head. Autopsy showed nothing but blunt forced trauma to the back of the head. He was in top physical health and my sister is still so angry at God for that. I think if my sister had someone to blame or a drunk driver to forgive it might be different for her but now this with my brothers son it just is too much…I love where you say “you can’t really mess up listening” 🙂 Thanks for that! Letting me vent! I need to get that book.

    • Heather C. King says:

      Oh Kim, I cannot imagine such horribly tragic loss. I’m so sorry. I am praying for your family today. Hurt like that can drive us away from God or draw us close to Him—praying that God does the work of healing that is needed!

What are your thoughts? Please comment here!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s