What To Say When You Don’t Know What To Say

I spent most of the day Monday pissed off.

I didn’t have one specific reason.  I was just… annoyed.  I was frustrated with passive aggressive behavior being directed around me – because the point of passive aggressive is that it’s never direct exactly at you.  I was ticked off thinking about crappy friends.  I was annoyed with people calling my work insisting that our company should provide our services for free.  I was bitter about the fact that I don’t seem to have a pair of black ankle boots in my shoe collection.

I was just, you know, pissed.  In general.  At everyone.

And then, as it sometimes does, the Internet put things in perspective for me.


This is a twitter update from my friend, Kim.  I read it and though “hm, sounds like something is up with her.”  I am woefully behind on haven’t done much blog reading lately, so I wasn’t exactly sure what Kim was talking about.  I clicked on over to her blog and found a recent post she’d written about being a member of the Widow club.  In her post, she was actually talking about having trouble finding a place to fit in with her new grief, and how blogging has helped with that.

I felt so ashamed when I read that post.

You see, on March 20th of this year, Kim’s husband died unexpectedly.  The night he died, she sent me a direct message on twitter.

“My husband just died.  What do I do?”

I didn’t receive her message until the next morning.  When I woke up to find the series of frantic cries for help on my phone, I was stunned.  I didn’t know Kim all that well.  I didn’t know her husband.  I sat with my phone in my hand and my dropped jaw and thought, mostly, “what the hell??”

I was overwhelmed by the enormity of what she was saying.  Of what had just happened to her.  Of what she was asking me.  Of what I should offer to her during a time that I could not, in any way, relate to.

And so I did what many people would do in that situation.


I did nothing.  I said, from what I remember, nothing.  I didn’t send her my phone number and offer to talk to her.  I didn’t email her and try to provide comfort or safe haven.  I didn’t reach out or try to understand what I could possibly do to ease her pain.  I did, basically, nothing, and hoped she’d forget about me and find someone who could help her.  Someone, I told myself, who knew her better.  Someone, I thought, who was better equipped and prepared to give her what she needed.  I did nothing, and quietly prayed that someone else, anyone but me, would be there for her.

Thank God, for Kim’s sake, someone else did.  Lots of people did, in fact.

Lots of people helped Kim, have been there for Kim, but not me.

As luck would have it, a few months after Kim lost her husband, I found myself in a position where I needed someone to be there for me.

Luckily, there are a lot of people in this world who are way, way better people than me.  The support came in waves.  It came by comment and tweet and facebook message.  It came by email and phone.  It came by the hour, in the hours when I needed it most.  It came from family and close friends and online acquaintances and virtual strangers.  It came in beautiful words and free hotel rooms and dinners and babysitting.  It came in constant reminders and spurts and, sometimes, in silence.

Bear with me, I am getting to a point.*

*I think.

Some of the most amazing, humbling, soul lifting support I have received over the last several weeks has come from people who were obviously hugely uncomfortable with the idea of trying to be supportive in the middle of a very public, very emotional, very messed up situation.

I could imagine them sitting at their computers thinking, mostly, “what the hell??”

And yet, they did something.

The PR woman who started off a business email with “we’ve all been reading your blog” – which was just enough to say “crap.  I know what you’re going through.  OK?”

The single woman who sent me one direct message just to say “so, um, don’t know what to say! Sorry!  Love you!” – which was just enough to say “crap.  I don’t know what to say.  But… well… HERE I AM!”

The man who latched on to the one not heart wrenching thing I’d said on the Internet in forever and said a not heart wrenching thing back – which was just enough to say “crap.  Uh.  This makes me really uncomfortable.  But… well… HI!  Here!  K?”

All of these people, men and women with varying comfort levels for intense personal pain, resisted the urge to do nothing and did something.  And while it may have seemed like just a tiny thing to them at the time, it was a huge, huge thing to me.  It was the exact opposite of the nothing that I had done for Kim.

And here’s where I attempt to tie all of these strings together.

I spent today being pissed off about all of the ways in which people can, well, piss me off.

And then I read Kim’s post, and I was reminded of how much I had done – by virtue of not doing – something entirely worthy of being pissed off at.  I was, at the same time, reminded of all the ways in which people had not pissed me off in the last few months – while understanding completely now what a big deal it was that they had reached out when it would have been so easy for them not to.  When doing nothing would have been simpler.

I sit here now and think about how often we are confronted with other people’s stuff.  I think about how, at times, it feels like too much.  It’s overwhelming.  We worry that we can’t do enough.  We fret about not knowing the right thing or the best thing.  We are faced with a pile of muck and crap and we find ourselves just as overwhelmed and confused as the person whose muck and crap we are now being forced to look at.

The compulsion to say “ACK!  Muck!  Crap!  Too much! Too much!” is strong.

And yet some of us, or rather, some of you, fight that compulsion and do something anyway.

And what you do, what you did, is a gift from God.


Becky compared it to “sitting shiva” in a comment, and she was right.  Sitting shiva is basically the act of just sitting with the mourner after a death.  You don’t have to do anything or say anything, unless the mourner speaks first.  You don’t have to fix anything (because really, what can you fix about death?).

You just sit.

You just be there.

You just do something – even when the something is just sitting.

Is my point in all this to tell you that it is your job to reach out to everyone you ever encounter who is in pain?

No.  Not at all.

My point, rather, is to encourage you not to be afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing if you find yourself encountering a desire to do something.  If you find yourself someday staring at someone else’s pile of muck and crap and thinking “what the hell??” and struggling to know what to say next… that’s OK.

You don’t have to get it right.  You don’t have to be eloquent.  You don’t even have to take on all of their pain or immerse yourself completely in their daily muck and crap in order to help.

The ONLY thing you have to do to help, should you desire to do so, is something.

Even if it’s just sitting.

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