I’ve lost loved ones from suicide and cancer. I’ve written a book about living with unresolved pain and suffering. And yet, I think I’m more of an “expert” (I use the term loosely) on what not to say to hurting people rather than what to say. It’s a lot easier to be dismissive or insensitive than it is to be wise, sometimes.
I think most people, but especially Christians, want to be that person who brings the right word, the right verse, or the right sentiment, at just the right time…but sometimes our attempts to be helpful are anything but.
After my father died, there was a point where I felt I reached the maximum number of times I could handle hearing “I’m sorry.” Still, I’d have rather heard that than “He’s in a better place now” or “God needed another angel,” or one of those other useless platitudes. I’d rather have heard “This sucks, and I’m sorry you’re going through it” a million times more than have anyone try to put a positive spin on my grief.
Some situations just can’t be dressed up and made pretty; they can only be witnessed. Sometimes all we can do as bystanders is help share the weight of the burden rather than try and remove it completely.
Other times, actions say more than words ever could: a hug from a friend, a squeeze on the shoulder as a relative lets me cry (which, sadly, is not possible for many people at this time due to quarantine and social distancing).
Words are failing me lately. There are gaps of time between entries in my prayer journal because I just don’t know what to say to God right now. I’m not angry, just tired. As much as I would love for this all to go away, there are two main things I want at this moment: to be of use to those who are suffering, and comfort for the afflicted. I feel like a bad friend to those I know are experiencing quarantine harder than others right now. Part of me feels that if I don’t have the right words, I shouldn’t say anything at all, lest I end up making things worse.
Thankfully, technology makes it easier than ever to let someone know I am emotionally present even if I cannot be physically. Still, words are the greatest talent and gift I have — and without them, I feel useless.
When the words for these things don’t come, I turn to liturgy in the Book of Common Prayer, which speaks for me. While some Christians complain about the dryness of rote, routine prayers, these days I am grateful for them, because they speak to needs that can’t be put into original words just yet.
I prayed the litany for the sick and dying for a friend who survived Covid, only to receive a grim prognosis from brain cancer. I pray the words of hope and redemption that have been well worn by the saints who have gone before me, because there is little else I can do. It doesn’t feel like enough. And yet these are the words holding me together when my own won’t do.