What to Say (When You Don’t Know What to Say)

We are “that” family. Chances are good that you either know us, or you know a family like us. We are the family that has had a series of unfortunate events. It’s been a terrible-horrible-no-good-very-bad-year, Alexander.

It is awkward all around. Our family desires to walk the fine line of both courageous transparency in the pit and bold broadcasting of triumph in the victory. In seasons of extended destruction, I find that I don’t walk that line very well. I want to say something inspiring or encouraging in the midst of our struggle, but I don’t know what to say. I’m self-conscious. Even in difficult seasons I like to be a life-giver, not a life-drainer.

I know how awkward it can be for you too. I have been you. You see a family struggling and you want to say something helpful, but you can’t find the words. You want to find that magic phrase that will take away all of the pain. But what if you say the wrong thing or it is taken the wrong way? What if your words just make it worse for a family who is already going through something terrible? Paralysis of analysis sets in, and you decided that it is better to say nothing at all than to risk using careless words.

I have been on both sides of this awkwardness so many times. I have put my foot in my mouth so many times. And mostly, I have found myself wishing that someone had just written a manual for the rest of us. You know, a “What to say when you don’t know what to say” for dummies.

I’m no expert, but I do want to at least approach this topic and take a stab at it. Below is a collection of things that people have said to me (or done for me) that have actually impacted my heart and lifted my load a bit while walking through fire.

  1. Sometimes all I need is to feel heard. I need to externally process with a safe person who’s only job is to listen and validate that my voice has been heard. My brother has been amazing at this. Sometimes he calls just to validate that I am not shouting into a soundless abyss.
  2. This is controversial for some who strictly adhere to conservative religious doctrine. I’m not here to debate that, just share how powerful it was when a Christian friend of mine saw the look on my face after an ultrasound and simply shouted “FFFFFUUUUUUUCCCCCCCKKKKKKKKKKK!!!!!!!”. She knew that I had just learned that my baby was dead. My dead baby was an injustice of universal proportions. My friend heard my heart crying out with the pain of injustice, and she cursed the universe on my behalf. I needed that.
  3. One time I was on a Zoom meeting with a mentor of mine who lives in Idaho. I had just shared with him about battling for one of my children who was dealing with crippling anxiety and suicide. I told my mentor that between my medically fragile child and this child, I haven’t slept in close to a decade. My mentor began crying and said the most healing phrase to me: “Just because you have an enormous capacity doesn’t mean that it’s okay that you have had to operate within it for so long.” Validation.
  4. I have found that it is particularly difficult to be transparent with the depths of our struggle. I often default to phrases like “I’m doing fine”, “God has a plan”, and “I don’t need anything right now”. That isn’t accurate. What I really mean is “I’m afraid”. I’m afraid of judgement. I’m afraid of losing you if I am a Debbie Downer. And I’m afraid that I will discourage you when all I want to do is fill YOUR bucket. Many friends have circumnavigated this fear by using the following phrases:
    1. “Thank you for being transparent with me. Transparency takes courage, and you are so brave.”
    2. “I know you. I see WHO YOU ARE, not what you are going through. There is a difference, and I see it.”
    3. “I respect you. There is no pity in my heart, and you are not my sympathy project.”
  5. I often get tunnel vision when I am in survival mode. I don’t know how to tell you what I need. All I know to do is keep doing what I have always done. When I have to stop and delegate a task to a helper it is just one extra thing I have to do. I am not Neurotypical to start with, and certainly not in a crisis. Don’t wait for me to respond. just show up. Show up, load the car seats in your car, and take my kids somewhere super fun. Show up with groceries. Walk our property and pray for us. Send my kids a gift. Kick me out and clean my house. Show up to watch my kids and insist that I go take a nap. Just please don’t make delegate to you or respond to you. I can’t.
  6. I have 3 friends (one of whom I’ve never met) who text me several times a week just to check in. They remind me that I am on their radar and that I don’t owe them anything. Our relationship is solid whether I give them a life update or not. And they persist. I can’t always reciprocate, and they don’t need me to. They are just there.
  7. Lastly, a friend recently adapted the phrase “I understand what you are going through” to make it less superficial. He simply said, “I understand that what you are carrying is enormous”. That phrase resonated so deeply because it was validating.

A big THANK YOU to each of my friends who had the discernment to say or do something worthy of making this list. Everyone is different. My hope is that this list can serve as a starting place for others who find themselves confused about how to help “that family”.