I don't know what to say

Linda and I were having coffee the other day, chatting about nothing in particular, when she burst into tears. “I have just been diagnosed with breast cancer,” she said. Taken by surprise, I hugged her and mumbled something that I hoped was meaningful. I felt ashamed that I could not say something more appropriate.

We are regularly faced with circumstances – sad, awkward, surprising, complex – and we just don’t know how to respond. Your friend is diagnosed with a serious illness. Your colleague is mourning the loss of someone close. Your sister is separating from her husband. What do you say? What comforting words or gestures will express the concern and empathy that you feel in your heart?

When someone we care about is hurting, our compassion compels us to reach out. Words can have a profound impact. They can reassure. They can console. They can comfort. They can raise spirits. They can make a difference.

But what are those words? Who hasn’t searched for the phrase that perfectly expresses our feelings, and ended up settling for ‘I don’t know what to say.’

What is the right thing to say? Do you have some special words that work for you? Has anyone ever said something to you in a time of crisis that was meaningful?

I am hoping that people will share their stories and advice on how to respond in troubled times.


Michael Gennis said...

Great blog!
Can't agree with Katie more. I once learned of an elderly cousin's passing and was unable to attend the funeral or visit the family. I decided to pen a note to her daughter and kept it focused on what her mother had meant to me and how she had helped me with words of encouragement when I was facing a personal challenge. The reaction to the note was one of gratitude (almost relief)that I had expressed myself in that way. I felt fulfilled that I had made them feel better and the reaction inturn made ME feel better. The whole thing was about turning a bad thing into a good one. And that came from saying the right thing.

I have also been on the receiving end of condolences (unfortunately) and I can attest to the extreme awkwardness that alot of people feel in such times. Awkward gestures (a hand shake vs. a hug), awkward words ("My sympathies" or "I'm so sorry")-You're sorry!?!, or the visits without meaningful conversation, just socializing. I found myself trying to put these poor souls at ease.

Brenda Litwin said...

First, this is the first blog I have ever read! But you are so right - it is hard to find the right words in so many situations. I believe it is OK to say, "I can't find the right words to say to you" because sometimes there are no words that can adequately express the feelings that you want to convey. Sometimes a hug is all that is needed.