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When Silence Says All the Wrong Things

When Silence Says All the Wrong Things

I kept waiting for the phone to ring. An email. A Facebook message. Something, anything that would indicate my friend hadn’t disappeared. But days and then weeks passed—still nothing. Hurt swelled. Questions piled up.

I understood why he hadn’t been at the funeral. A Midwestern blizzard had made the roads untravellable, keeping many out-of-towners at a distance. And in the weeks that followed, my husband and I had opted to stay at my in-laws, not yet ready to carry the grief and care for our toddler son alone. I thought, “Maybe he doesn’t realize we’re not home, or he’s giving us space.”

But the longer the silence lingered, the more assumption filled the void. I tried to translate the quiet, to make sense of his absence, but the space did nothing but amplify the ache of losing our baby. Silence is never neutral.

Time has allowed grace to fill in the gaps left by such silences. But even now—nine years later— I can’t think about them without a little sting.

In a world full of words, where everyone has something to say about everything from immigration to the Enneagram, we grow strangely mute when suffering arrives on the scene. The discomfort is palpable. Grown adults squirm and avert their eyes. We rationalize why our help isn’t needed or say we don’t want to intrude. But really, what we want is to maintain our distance.

Please hear this: I get it. Having carried my own grief doesn’t make me more comfortable entering into the pain of others. Someone I love gets diagnosed with a crippling disease, discovers an unfaithful spouse or is fired from a job, and immediately I am paralyzed. Fear of saying or doing the wrong thing immobilizes my compassion, and my first response is to stay quiet.

But our silence is anything but quiet.

To the person who is hurting, silence tells tales of isolation and shame, whispering “you are alone and unworthy” in the dark. The din reverberates, not only announcing our absence again and again but widening the gaps in our humanity. Simon and Garfunkel had it right when they sang “silence like a cancer grows,” because our quiet multiplies the pain of others. Rarely does it speak of our compassion.

Pain requires presence. No one heals fully in isolation. Just as God took on flesh and entered into our sufferings, how even now He comes “close to the brokenhearted” (Ps. 34:18), we too must enter into the pain of others. We cannot wait to become more comfortable, because quite frankly, it might not happen. Instead we must choose to push past our uneasiness. Ignore our own personal panic and just show up.

We don’t have to have the right words. In my experience, even the wrong words were better than no words at all, because I knew that behind the ill-timed Scripture quote or theologically skewed cliché was a person who felt my pain and was trying. Their presence mattered more than perfect answers.

And that’s the thing: Our hurting friends don’t need our answers. They don’t need us to say something magical to make the pain disappear. They just need people willing to come near. To sit and say, “I’m sorry. This sucks. I ache with you.”

Shared suffering is always lighter. Presence is a salve that allows people to be more comfortable in their own pain and heal at their own pace. By pushing past our momentary discomfort and showing up, our presence becomes a tangible extension of God—of grace that has fingers and toes and breathes in and out.

Our humanity is not the least but the best of what we have to offer each other.

In the days after our son’s death, our mailbox was inundated with notes from friends, family, even complete strangers. Delicately, I’d open each envelope and devour every word. To this day, I keep that box of letters nestled in my bedroom closet, not because the words are eloquent or original or new, but because each one reminds me I am not alone in my grief. 

And they remind me not to stay silent.

Words to Get You Started

What can we say when we don’t know what to say? Breaking the silence isn’t easy, but we must move from simply feeling empathy to verbalizing it. An approach I’ve found helpful is to find words—perhaps just a sentence or two—that expresses what I’m experiencing in response to a friend’s pain. Examples might include:

  • “I wish you weren’t going through this.”
  • “My heart hurts with you, and I want to help.”
  • “I don’t know what to say. May I just sit with you?”
  • “It’s so hard to see you in so much pain.”

A special note: Sometimes specific types of suffering—especially if it involves trauma—might be triggering for us personally. If a friend’s pain makes our own wounds resurface and we need space, let’s give ourselves that grace. However, we can still let the friend know why we can’t be as present as we want to be.

And when we mess up, a humble apology goes a long way. Remember that presence isn’t about saying all the words or even the right words, but about showing up. The aim is not to take the pain away, but to be in it with them.

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