Hey, my friends. Welcome back to Let’s Encourage One Another. Today, we are going to talk about one of the most common things we experience when we have a friend who is hurting.
“I don’t know what to say.”
It is a problem we all struggle with when someone we care about is hurting. We’re afraid of being the one who messes it up. We don’t want to be the person they remember as saying the off-handed comment at the funeral. We don’t want to push our friend away because of some careless words that slipped out of our mouths.
So when others create these lists about “say this, don’t say that,” we tend to cling to them like some sort of lifeline, memorizing the phrases so we can speak them the next time round.
Now, these lists are designed to help us recognize that what we mean to be encouraging might actually be received as hurtful by the other person. It can help us see things from the other perspective, help us be more intentional with our words.
But there are four problems I see with these lists, and I want to bring them to you not because I want to criticize these lists. There is value in considering them and thinking through them, so please do that. But I want to talk about them because there are some important truths that they are missing or don’t take into consideration.
They Make Us Even More Afraid to Mess It Up
First, these lists can actually have the opposite effect and make us want to say nothing at all.
Seeing a list of phrases that tell us “you shouldn’t say this to someone who is grieving” can stir up even more feelings of insecurity and fear that we are going to mess it up.
But, as Nancy Guthrie writes in her book What Grieving People Wish You Knew, “It matters less what you say than that you say something.”
To not say anything at all ignores and overlooks the pain that our friend is walking through. If we never ask how they’re doing, if we never say we’re so sorry for what they’re going through, if we never acknowledge the hurt they are carrying with them, then our silence communicates that it doesn’t matter, that their loss doesn’t matter, that their hurt doesn’t matter.
And I know that’s the last thing we want to communicate to our friends.
There is no perfect phrase. There is nothing we can say that’s going to fix it all. So don’t let these “do not say” lists scare you away from saying something. It can be as simple as “I’m so sorry.” Or, “I don’t know what to say, but I’m here for you.” Or it can be a look of love in your eye and a hand on their shoulder.
Just say something.
They Don’t Take Into Account How You Say Something
So these “do not say” lists often make us even more afraid of saying something wrong. Second, they don’t take into account the way we say something.
Now, my Master’s degree is in communication and one of the things we often talked about was the power of non-verbal communication, which is everything but the words themselves: your facial expression, your body movement, your hand gestures, your rate of speech, your tone of voice.
So the way we say something matters.
One of the things I often see on these “do not say” lists are Bible verses. Bible verses! “Don’t cite Bible verses to your hurting friend. They don’t need lectures, they don’t need preaching. They know the verses, they don’t need you to say it, too.”
Now, do we want to flippantly spout off Bible verses? Of course not. May we never be so disrespectful of God’s Word.
But, my friends, I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve needed someone to remind me of a promise in Scripture that I so desperately needed to hold onto. Not spoken flippantly to me, but spoken with conviction and love.
Let me give you an example. Romans 8:28 is a common verse shared with those who are hurting.
Here’s what it might sound like when spoken lightly or flippantly: “Now, Sally, God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love him…” Like nails on a chalkboard, right?
Now, here’s what it might sound like spoken with conviction and love: “Sally, I know it doesn’t feel like it right now, but God said that He works everything together for good. I don’t know how, but God will work this for good. He will redeem it.”
Do you hear the difference? The way you say something matters. The look in your eye when you say something matters.
They Overlook the Importance of Hearing “Me, Too”
So these “do not say” lists can make us even more afraid of messing it up, and they don’t take into account how we say something.
Third, they overlook the importance of hearing, “me, too.” Because often what is on the “don’t say” list is to not share your own story of hurt or grief.
They say this because it takes the attention away from the person who is hurting. It puts the focus on you instead. And when you’re caring for someone who is hurting, it’s about them—and rightly so—so I understand why they include it on the list.
But, my friends, we need to hear the “me, too” stories. We need to know we are not the only one who has lost a spouse, lost a child, been through a divorce, gotten fired, been abused. We need to know we’re not the only one who battles depression or anxiety or an eating disorder.
That’s why support groups can be so powerful. We sit with others who are also grieving, who are also going through cancer, who are also kids of alcoholics. We hear their stories. We find common places of hurt and pain. We relate to one another. And we find healing together.
Maybe we don’t share our stories right when our friend’s grief or hurt is fresh, but we say, “I’ve been abused, too, and it’s hard, and if you ever want to talk, I’m here.”
They Don’t Consider How God is Leading Us
So “do not say” lists can make us even more afraid to say something to our friend, they don’t take into account the way we say something, and they overlook the importance of hearing “me, too” from others who have been through similar situations.
And fourth, these “do not say” lists don’t consider how God is leading us to speak to our friend.
We can trust God to give us the words we need to say. Because every situation is different, every friendship is different, every person is in a different stage of grief and healing. So to say “never say this” is speaking in an absolute, and it just doesn’t work that way.
We need to be mindful of our timing, yes.
We need to be aware of how they are struggling, yes.
But we can trust God to lead us in all of that.
We need to be women of discernment, who can identify when God is calling us to speak words of comfort and encouragement to our friend, and who also have the courage to do so, even when it doesn’t make sense to us.
Now, our friend may not always respond the way we want them to, but we trust God with the results, we trust Him to be working in their heart.
Know This Instead
So those are four problems I see with “do not say” lists and how they can impact not just us but our friends who are hurting and who need us to show up and be there for them.
Instead of being worried about what to say to a friend who is hurting, this is what you need to know:
- It’s better to say something than to ignore their hurt and say nothing at all.
- It’s important for us to speak with love and conviction.
- Our friends need to know they are not alone in their hurt and grief, so sharing our own experiences—when the time is right—is so very important.
- And God will guide you in how to support your friend. He will help you show up and speak with both courage and compassion.
Which one of these truths resonated with you the most today? I’d love to hear. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and remember, my name is spelled K-A-R-I.
Okay, that’s all for today. Until next time… let’s encourage one another.
QUOTES + BIBLE VERSES:
- “It matters less what you say than that you say something.” (Nancy Guthrie, What Grieving People Wish You Knew)
- Romans 8:28 (NLT): “And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them.”
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