I Don't Know What to Say

I hesitate to write and share this post. I think it is an important conversation to have, but I don't want it to be taken as ungrateful or angry. I pray this will be an encouragement to both those in pain, and to those walking alongside of those in pain.

I hesitate to write and share this post. I think it is an important conversation to have, but I don't want it to be taken as ungrateful or angry. I pray this will be an encouragement to both those in pain, and to those walking alongside of those in pain.

“I think that our culture is ‘grief illiterate,’” my friend said.

I had just explained to her and another friend how I have been doing since losing our daughter at 33 weeks pregnant. And I had just thanked them for asking.

They expressed their thoughts: “We don’t know what we are doing. We have never been through anything like this, and it’s hard to know what to say.”

How are we supposed to respond to people’s pain? What are we supposed to say to someone who lost a child? To someone who found out they have cancer? To someone who lost their job, is struggling with a mental illness, or was served divorce papers?

It can be awkward. Especially if you have never gone through what that person is experiencing. It can be awkward even if you have.

Since our 20 week ultrasound when we were told our daughter probably wouldn’t live, and since our daughter passed away at 33 weeks along, people have said a lot of things.

There are those Christian clichés like, “God is good, all the time. All the time, God is good.” But all I could think was: I never said God isn’t good. I only said I am in pain.

There are those Bible verses like, “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him.” But I actually said out loud to my mother-in-law: If one more person quotes Romans 8:28 to me, I am going to hit them over the head with a Bible.

And there are those words and bits of advice that have the healing effect of a Band-Aid on a broken bone: “Well, maybe this is for the best. You are young. You’ve got plenty of time to have more kids.” But that's totally not the point.

At times I wondered if there was something wrong with me. 

Why do these words hurt? Why isn’t that Scripture passage comforting right now?

But then a friend sent me an article that said this:

If you are a Christian who is experiencing the disappointment and disillusionment that comes with unexplained pain and suffering, you have most likely received two kinds of responses from fellow Christians. Neither one of them helps, and yet you hear them with such frequency that you wonder if everybody’s reading the same faulty instruction manual entitled, “How to Simultaneously Dismiss and Offend Those Who Suffer,” which nobody has had the decency to burn, or at least rewrite.

Response number one involves people who seem to be more concerned with defending the character of God, rather than walking alongside you in your pain. Their opening arguments begin with the insistence that God is all-powerful, all knowing, and all good. God both initiates and allows your suffering because a greater plan is in the works. They will carefully remind you that even though you can’t see it, and don’t know it, God must have a reason for your pain. God, after all, is in control, and your job is not to understand, but to simply shrug your shoulders and wait until God’s plan finally unfolds.

Response number two involves pressure to follow an immediate action plan through which your suffering will stop. This involves following a formula which, if followed exactly, will relieve you of your pain as soon as you simply put it to action. You hear stories of people who were “just like you,” and now are completely healed. Your hopes are raised and then dashed when these formulas fail. You feel betrayed by God, horribly defective because nothing “works” on you, and perhaps your friends have even given up on you because you must not have enough faith. – Steve Weins

And since that 20 week appointment, and since the passing of our child, I realized more clearly that I was hurt by the kinds of words that tried to fix our pain. And I was comforted by the kinds of words that simply acknowledged our pain.

Our culture is grief illiterate. It makes us uncomfortable when people are in pain. Sadness is awkward. We don’t know what to say. But I hope that we as a culture can begin to recognize and be encouraged by a few things as we walk alongside those who are suffering:

1. It is not our job to fix people’s pain.

We have amazing intentions. We want people to feel “all better,” and we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to help them do so. I think this is where our Christian clichés and unsolicited advice come from. But it is not our job to make people feel “all better.” Words, no matter how true or well intended, aren’t capable of healing our deepest wounds and our broken hearts. Only God, the Comforter, the Healer is.

We don’t “grieve as those who have no hope,” but we still grieve. Some well-meaning people will try to make excuses for God, even though God’s ways are unknowable, and any good plan that involves children dying is unfathomable to our human minds anyway. But I also know for a fact that He has had His hand on you throughout this whole ordeal, and will continue to do so. – Susan

2. Our job is to walk with people through their pain.

The words that we use should demonstrate that. Our words should simply acknowledge people's pain, not try to fix it. The best things to say are simple, like “I’m sorry,” or “I’m praying for you,” or “I’m thinking of you, or “I cried some ugly tears over you today,” or “This sucks.”

I know that there are truly no words to heal the pain that you feel at this time. It is so hard to understand how this could be a part of any plan, but I hope that both of you will draw closer to God and let His mercy and grace sustain you each new day. – Laura

3. We don’t always need to use words.

Hugs, tears, prayers, gifts, flowers, and casseroles go an incredibly long way.

It is difficult to find the right words when you are suffering so much. Sometimes words are not even necessary. Just knowing that fellow Christians love you, are thinking of you tenderly, and are praying for you, is enough. – Marilyn S.

4. Processing pain takes time.

We can’t confine people’s pain to a time line, or to stages, or to the day that last casserole is delivered. Some kinds of grief never arrive at closure. Processing pain takes a long time. Sometimes, a lifetime.

I hear that the two of you have a strong faith, but that doesn’t mean your hearts are not sorrowful…I know that you have a lot of support and much kindness has been extended, but it is still a loss and you grieve. – Marilyn L.

5. Faith and pain don’t cancel each other out.

People can have great faith and feel great pain at the same time. Pain is not a sign of weak faith. Many have testified that their faith and recognition of God's providing hand was strongest during their toughest trials.

The day after we buried {our daughter}, my husband said to me, “You know, I think we expected our faith to make this hurt less, but it doesn’t. Our faith gave us an incredible amount of strength and encouragement while we had Hope, and we are comforted by the knowledge that she is in heaven. Our faith keeps us from being swallowed by despair. But I don’t think it makes our loss hurt any less.” – Nancie Guthrie, Holding On To Hope

6. Saying the wrong thing is still better than saying nothing at all.

Sadness is awkward. It makes us uncomfortable when other people are in pain. For that reason we might think that it's best to avoid that person and their pain altogether. But what’s worse than saying the wrong thing, is saying nothing at all. A million times worse. Do something. Or say something. Even if the only thing we can think of is “I don’t know what to say.” Do what it takes to acknowledge their pain, and remind them that we are there to walk with them through it.

So many people are afraid to bring up my loss. They don’t want to upset me. But my tears are the only way I have to release the deep sorrow I feel. I tell people, “Don’t worry about crying in front of me, and don’t be afraid that you will make me cry! Your tears tell me you care, and my tears tell you that you’ve touched me in a place that is meaningful to me – and I will never forget your willingness to share my grief.” – Nancie Guthrie, Holding On To Hope

And this is the part where I say, "Thank you."

While I think this is a conversation that needs to be had with a lot of love and grace, I don’t write this out of any anger. Rather, I write this in peace and out of gratitude to the multitude of people who didn’t always know what to say, but chose to say something rather than say nothing at all. Thank you to those who acknowledge our pain and commit to walking with us through it, no matter how long it takes. 

Even though it can be awkward. Even though it’s hard to know what to say. Thank you.

No words can tell you all how we feel. We pray and we cry. God’s plan for our life is so hard to understand sometimes. When our heart is broken God is always there to comfort us. You are always on our mind. We love you all dearly. – Grandma

Grace and Peace,
Kendra