Have you ever found yourself face to face with someone who was going through a hard time, someone who was struggling, maybe someone who had just poured their heart out to you and was now staring at you with wet, hopeful eyes? Have you ever thought to yourself, “What am I supposed to say here?” You don’t want to say the wrong thing, or maybe you don’t have any experience with what they’re dealing with. You’re out of ideas, out of words, and find yourself grasping for how to respond.
Fear not! The cliché dice are here! Now you can reply cleverly and earnestly to friends and loved ones with tried-and-true clichés, little nuggets of wisdom that will leave your pained pal feeling better, feeling like you really listened. But more importantly, just one nonchalant roll of the dice will leave you feeling like you helped, without all the hard work of actually having to empathize.
Ridiculous, right? I used to think so, too.
Struggle in our lives can bring out the awkward in those around us – heck, it can bring out the ignorance. Miscarriage, job loss, struggling with a child with special needs or even my own health, there is no shortage of dumb stuff and stale, incompatible clichés that people toss my way. I know I’m not alone in this experience. I’m sure you can think back to a time when you were struggling – or maybe you find yourself having a hard time now – and some (probably) well-meaning person said something just so utterly dumb, thinking they were helping.
Recently I had such a moment, crying to a counselor about a very big decision with regards to one of my children. I had just spend the last several minutes pouring my broken heart out, desperation spilling from my eyes, sharing my innermost thoughts and turmoil and insecurities. I needed this woman’s wisdom, needed her guidance, needed someone who could speak some truth to me that would help me, in any way. Instead, she rolled the dice.
“I mean, what have you got to lose?”
This was her response. Seriously.
“MY CHILD.” Was mine.
She tried to backpedal, but the damage was done. She may not have ever been in the situation I was, and genuinely may not have known what to say. That wasn’t the way to fill the silence.
When we experienced our first miscarriage, people were rolling the dice left and right. “Let’s hope that one wasn’t a girl!” “At least you know you can get pregnant!” “You must not have prayed hard enough.” “Eh, something was probably wrong with it.” “At least you have other kids already.” “Lots of people have miscarriages.” “At least you weren’t that far along.” “I wonder if you did/ate/breathed/looked at anything to cause it.” And the worse possible side of the cliché dice, the one you should never roll (but so many people seem to) – “I know exactly how you feel. Let me tell you about my experience instead of listening to you cope with yours.”
Guys, listen. There’s a time and a place for sharing our scars. We can grow together, empathize, relate, become vulnerable and find healing in each other’s pain. But right in the big fat middle of someone else’s suffering is not the time to share yours. It’s literally pouring salt into their wound. No matter how much you may understand from your own personal experience, listen to theirs. Unless you are asked for advice, keep your own experience to yourself. You can weep tears of understanding, cry prayers of compassion, but give the hugs you would have wanted and the listening ears you would have needed. Never, ever, under any circumstances, ever, EVER, roll the dice and say, “I know exactly how you feel.” Because you don’t. At all. You’re different people. You have different thoughts. You have different ways of processing emotions. You may have an idea. You may have experienced the exact same scenario. But your experience is your experience, and their trauma is theirs, and whatever they’re in the middle of is really hard. Don’t minimize their feelings by trying to mix them with your own. Let them have their own upset.
“When God closes a door He opens a window.” “God will never give you more than you can handle.” Nope. These aren’t even Biblical. There are no Bible verses to back these things up, and all they do is dismiss the current pain by telling the sufferer it will get better later. The truth is, you don’t know if it will get better. You don’t know if something else awaits. The truth is that closing a door sucks, and that’s what your friend needs to process right now. The truth is that God will absolutely give us more than we can handle. The truth is that sometimes we willingly risk more than we can handle. The truth is that God is near to the brokenhearted. That’s Biblical. That’s something you can share. You have no idea what God has planned for this person before you, but you do know that God won’t leave them, God loves them, and their tears do not go unnoticed by God. Besides, doors are way easier to get through than windows, so why would the idea of God opening a window make anyone feel better?
I lied. I said the worst response you could get from the cliché dice is “I know exactly how you feel.” That’s inaccurate. It’s still an awful, awful way to respond to someone struggling, but it’s not the most awful way. The worst, most terrible, most horrible, most painful way to respond to someone in the midst of a battle is… ” .” Saying nothing. Rolling the dice and coming up in the blank side. Sure, you’re not expected to have a sermon and a 9-point plan each time someone pours their heart out to you, and there is absolutely a time for quiet, for listening, for hugs and silent sobs. I’m talking about when you walk past the woman who is going through a divorce. When you see the man who just lost his job. When you walk past the parents whose child just received a devastating diagnosis. The person who has buried a loved one, the woman overwhelmed with the sickness her family has been sharing the last few weeks, the guy who you know is battling depression, and yes, the couple who just experienced a miscarriage.
Don’t. Be. Silent.
If all other words and sentiments escape you and you really just don’t know what to do, look them deep in the eyes, open up a text or email, and say, “I’m so sorry.” Really. Do not let them walk past you, do not scroll past their name on social media, do not let them come into your view and your mind without offering your sympathy, without asking them how they are. Ask them how you can help. Ask them what they need. Ask them how they’re feeling. Ask them about what they’re going through. Don’t pretend it isn’t happening. Don’t smile and hope it’s a bright spot in their stormy times. Don’t protect yourself from the discomfort of their pain by pretending it isn’t real. Ask them.
I almost planned out a second, separate post on asking people how they are, and I still may, but this has to go here. Ask people. If you know they’re going through a life change, a struggle, a battle, or just had a bad day, ask them about it. Don’t let them feel isolated. Don’t allow them to fall victim to the lie that they’re all alone. Even if you have no idea what it’s like or if you went through the very same thing last year, ask them. Take time out of your day, make them feel loved, and ask them.
Let’s be honest, a lot of the discomfort we feel that prompts us to roll the cliché dice comes more from us wanting to feel like we accomplished something rather than the pain we’re witnessing. Most people aren’t expecting an expert opinion when they’re sharing their struggles with you. They’re not looking to you for all the answers. They don’t think their success lies in whatever you say next. The pressure is off, y’all, you don’t have to have any solutions. You just have to make them feel heard, loved, and important. You don’t have to feel comfortable or accomplished when discussing someone’s battles. You will feel awkward and helpless sometimes. But don’t roll those dice and toss tired old terms at a person in pain. When it comes to broken hearts, uncertain futures, loss, pain, sadness, anger, desperation, and shame, clichés suck.
Don’t roll the dice. Just care about people. If you’re worried about not knowing what to say, then say so. Tell this wounded soul that you don’t have words you think will help, but you have arms that can hug, a heart that can care, ears that can hear, and dice in the trash.