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It’s Okay To Not Know What To Say…

Priding myself on finding the right thing to say, I would spend hours composing what I thought would be the most comforting notes/emails/letters to those I needed to send condolences to for whatever the reason may be. I am also the type of person who spends a lot of time of picking out the perfect birthday/greeting/holiday card, even though I know the recipient will most likely dispose of it soon after it’s received. My thinking was that the perfect phrase, quote or card would somehow magically transform the person reading it and bring them the joy, peace or encouragement they were seeking.

Having experienced my own health crisis (a breast cancer diagnosis this past May), I now know that it doesn’t matter what is said. There are too many things happening to even notice what is said to you. Of course, receiving thoughtful messages is appreciated. In my case, what I did notice was those who didn’t acknowledge my direct message informing them of my situation. In full disclosure, I informed most people that I am not explicitly close to, but felt should have a personal message from me, via individual e-mail. It’s not the ideal way to inform someone that you have the big C, but it worked best for me. Now, I know that none of these people had bad intentions. I am sure that they just didn’t know what to say, so I didn’t get a response back. Perhaps they didn’t feel that a response back was needed, just plain didn’t care or were offended by how I told them. Although I did expect a reply back, whatever the reason for the lack of response, it’s okay. I know now that nobody expects a perfect response or card. I also know that’s it’s okay to just simply say “I don’t know what to say.”  I always thought that statement was a cop out, but it’s most certainly not.  It just made me wonder if my message was received or if my news somehow angered the person receiving it (strange thing to think, I know).

I have really learned from this experience and about always having the “perfect thing” to say. Does it really matter? I think what matters is not worrying about the perfect thing to say, but sending out your message promptly.  Like most people, I value honesty. Generally, I have no problem with anything a person has to tell me as long as it’s honest.

Prior to my diagnosis, I had agreed to volunteer for a local non-profit organization in my area. When I informed the organization’s CEO of my situation and that I was unsure of my volunteer status, I didn’t get a response for several days. The response I did receive was so honest and heartfelt that I was truly touched. The response went on to say that she was so stunned by my news that she didn’t know what to say. She had been trying to think of the perfect thing to say, but couldn’t. She was so embarrassed that it had taken her so long to respond, that she was just going to tell me how she honestly felt and explain the delay in her response. To me, that was the perfect response. Honest and heartfelt.

Recently, the October 2010 edition of Whole Living magazine fell into my lap. In this issue, there is an article by Val Walker titled “How to Comfort Someone in Crisis”. Ms. Walker details that in her 16 years plus of facilitating support groups for bereaved, traumatized, or gravely ill people, many have shared with her some of the statements that others have made in attempts to offer comfort. The article goes on to list what’s helpful and not so helpful to say and I would like to share these statements with you. I know that I’ve said some of the things that are noted as less helpful.  Now, I know a better way to phrase things.

Less Helpful More Helpful
“Be strong and you’ll get through it.” “I can only imagine how you’ve coped.”
“It happened for the best.” “I’m so sorry this has happened.”
“You are lucky that your father died peacefully.” ”I was so sad to hear the newsabout your father.”
“Your fears have probably made your chakras imbalanced.” “How is your body dealing with the strain?”
You have your whole life ahead of you.” “Allow some time for this.”
“I know what that’s like.” “Do you mind telling me what it’s like?”
“This is a part of life, part of living.” “No one should have to go through that.”
“You should go to a support group.” “Have you ever thought about a support group?”
“When you feel ready, just give me a call.” “I’ll call you Monday night to touch base.”

Whole Living, October 2010 issue.

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This article is intended to convey general educational information and should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional healthcare advice.

One comment

  1. Linda Dozier

    ..great article! Thanks

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