No Right Words: What to Say When You Don’t Know What to Say

The news came in bits and pieces – a trip to the hospital, some internal bleeding, too much blood thinner. Then the suspicion of diabetes which would mean big lifestyle changes. More tests to confirm. And then they found the tumor, wrapped around pancreas and liver, obstructing valves and major arteries. Then the biopsy and the final (though no longer unexpected) diagnosis – Cancer.

And just like that, life changes. Conversations about what will happen next year or even next month are fraught with hesitation. The future everyone has taken for granted now dangles by a thread.

I am amazed by how quickly perspective shifts in these situations. Something clicks into places and our fundamentally adaptive natures try to bend themselves around a new reality. We find ourselves saying things that would have been ridiculous just weeks ago. “I’m so glad he made it to the hospital when he got sick.” “It’s wonderful that he has family with medical training to help.” We are grateful for the most absurd things. For the shots of insulin that simulate a pancreas. For a treatment plan that may buy a few more precious months.

This grief is one step removed from me -the loved one of a dearly loved one. I won’t pretend that this affects me as directly as it does her and her family. (But surely the next worst thing after losing someone you love must be watching someone you love losing someone they love).

I stand in my shower on the other side of the world and sob, hiding my face in the corner of the tiled wall. My loved one is losing her loved one and I am not there. How could I not be there? And instead I am in this wretched (right now) country 7,000 miles away, unable to do the only thing I know how to do. Be present. I get out of the shower and try to prepare myself for the conversation I’m about to have. I am afraid. I rely on words like air and suddenly there aren’t any right ones.

I think of the story of Lazarus. That famously short verse that simply says, “Jesus wept.” This story has always moved me deeply. It’s not just that Jesus shows empathy and humanity in this moment. It’s because he shows it in spite of the fact that he is minutes away from raising Lazarus back to life.

Almost two years ago to the day, a classmate of mine from college passed away unexpectedly. At the time I wrote this post about grieving where I reflected on what it meant for Jesus to weep for Lazarus in spite of knowing that glory was mere minutes away. Maybe this isn’t just a story to reassure us of Jesus’s compassion, but is also instructive for us in how to be human.

“I think it’s this exact feeling we have when things like Josiah’s death occur. We are wracked with grief because the world is not as it should be. Our hearts are torn because, even though we have the hope of eternity, in the present things are broken. I think Jesus shows us by example that it is appropriate, even correct, to grieve for the brokenness of the present even as we hold the hope of the future. What is more horrific  in the present than the stark contrast of the way the world is now against the glorious way it was meant to be and will be in the future?”

I open my computer and my friend’s face fills the screen.  “This is NOT OK,” I say to my dearest friend, whom I love as though she is a part of myself,. “And it’s probably not going to be OK for a long, long time. And it’s OK not to be OK.” I don’t know if it’s the right thing to say, but I refuse to profane this moment by spewing words I don’t mean. Maybe these aren’t the most encouraging words, but they are the only ones that feel true.



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