You’ve probably read those articles before. You know, the ones written to instruct you on “What Not to Say to a Special Needs Parent.” If you’ve never read one before, here’s a good example of one that even offers alternatives here. But there’s one response that I haven’t found on the lists yet. My one “what not to say” is this: ANYTHING. The converse of that would be “what TO say:” NOTHING. The vast majority of people feel the need to say something when they are with another person who is struggling with grief. The felt need of the person coming alongside the one grieving is to “fix” it. They don’t want the other person to suffer in any way and want to do or say whatever they can to make it stop. But the felt need of the person suffering is to grieve. To be allowed time and space to grieve. What the one coming alongside may not realize, though, is that there is power in their presence alone.
It seems that this universal problem is most strongly experienced by men. How many girlfriends and wives have told their significant other when they are crying or upset by something, “Stop trying to FIX this!”? If they haven’t actually told them, they are definitely thinking it. Don’t know what I’m talking about? Take less than two minutes for a brief comic relief and watch, “It’s Not About the Nail.”
When you are in the thick of emotions, the last thing you need is a solution to the problem. In the world of parenting a special needs child, solutions are elusive. Solutions are fantasies, not practicalities. Platitudes and cliches do little to help and actually do more to drive that nail in farther. Think about it for a second. If your kid accidentally kicks you in the shin as hard as they intended to kick that ball, how much good would it really do for your spouse to come up next to you, put their hand on your shoulder and say, “Aw, honey, suck it up. It could have been worse.” Or, “I have a friend who broke his shin bone. I can’t imagine the pain.” The heart is there, sure. But does it really make you feel better? Does it lessen the actual pain you are experiencing? Probably not. The fact remains that you are in pain. Could it be worse? Yes. Do others experience more suffering than you? Yes. Does the knowledge of either of those things negate your pain? No.
I think it’s necessary to explore the reason for such platitudes before kicking them to the curb forever. Tragedy, crisis, unexpected challenges, and difficult life changes in general bring about pain, heartache and grief. On the other side of pain, heartache, and grief are healing, peace, and joy. There in the middle lies tension between the two sides. We don’t like hardship. We don’t like pain. We’ll do anything to avoid it. And when someone else is experiencing that suffering, we don’t like that either. We want to bring them over to our side. We want to restore peace and joy. But we don’t know how.
Most of the time, there’s nothing we can do to fix it, and we feel helpless. Helplessness leaves us feeling guilty which leads to our own pain of sorts. Because we want to avoid those feelings, we avoid the situation that would cause those feelings. Which means walking away from the one who is crying. Pretending we don’t see them. Or, in our need for restoration, we go to them and try to give words that will fix it, knowing full well our words can’t fix anything. In fact, those words meant to uplift and encourage can actually backfire and end up hurting them even worse. (Hence, the posts on “what not to say.”)
Silence is hard. Unless you’re alone, silence is awkward. How many places have you been where there isn’t some sort of background music playing? It’s in elevators, grocery stores, restaurants, malls, bookstores, sporting events, restrooms (sometimes the soundtrack is different in the bathroom than it is in the store,) when you’re on hold on the phone, even on blogs and websites. Have you ever been in a group setting where a question is asked and everyone sits uncomfortably in silence? It usually doesn’t take long before someone can’t take the silence anymore and finally speaks up (usually me!)
All of these things together – awkward silence, tension borne from the desire to fix the circumstance and move people past their grief – mean that most of us are incapable of not saying something. So we open our mouths and start wagging our tongues. “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.” (False.) “God only gives special children to special parents.” (False.) “God works all things together for the good of those who love Him.” (True.)
Ephesians 4:29 says, “Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear.” The examples given above may not be unwholesome, but, is it edifying (to teach a person so as to improve their mind or character)? Does it minister grace to their heart? Are the words really going to help them? The words may be true. God does indeed work all things for good. But is that what the grieving person needs?
No. Not necessarily in that moment. When your best friend is sitting on your couch and is crying over the uncertainty of a recent diagnosis (or lack thereof) and the health of their only child, she just needs to cry. She needs YOU to just sit next to her and let. her. cry. Let her cry out all the questions and frustrations she is feeling without you having an answer to any of it. Chances are, you have no answers. Because you can’t fix this. And she likely knows God is working it all out for her good and His glory. It’s necessary to work through those emotions and grieve. There is tension there, yes. But it’s okay to rest in the tension. It’s okay to just sit there and put your arm around her. It’s okay not to talk. What your friend needs – what she wants – is you. There is power in your presence alone. You, whom she loves and trusts enough to express her grief without judgement. It wouldn’t matter if you were the most eloquent speaker in the country. It’s not about the words.