Over the past two months, I’ve had lots of people ask me how they can help. Do you need anything? they ask. How are you doing? Or worse, some say nothing at all.
Our culture conditions us to reply with the obligatory “I’m okay” or “I’m fine” or “we don’t need anything, but thank you.” Our culture conditions us to lie when we are hurting.
Honesty is truly the best policy, but it is not always comfortable. Perhaps that’s why our natural tendency is to shy away from those in pain: we don’t want to subject our “I’m fine” lives to the “I’m not fine” lives of others. I know because I have been there. I’ve been the one who didn’t know what to say or what to do. I’ve been the one who didn’t understand, so I was the one who didn’t say anything at all.
During our time overseas, one of the things I came to appreciate about Germans is their blunt honesty. They do not understand the American greeting of “how are you?” and our mandatory conditioned response of “I’m fine.” If you ask a German how he or she is doing, you will get an honest answer: “Agh, this weather is sheisse, my dog ran away and got hit by a car, and I have a very bad toothache.” It might be uncomfortable at first, but the Germans will tell you exactly what is on their mind. If they aren’t fine, you will know it.
American culture is vastly different. We plaster on a smile, we stuff the pain down inside, we tell everyone we are fine. In order to help the hurting, we need to be able to peel away that mask and see the pain underneath.
What exactly can you do for those who are hurting? Don’t ask. Just do. Bring over a meal without asking. Send flowers or a card—even a brief email with a note of encouragement. Have a cup of coffee with them, ask them “no really, how are you?” and listen to the response. Allow them to cry on your shoulder. Don’t try to fix the problem because, honestly, it isn’t something that can be fixed.
You don’t have to know what to say. Honestly, those who are grieving don’t need you to say anything at all other than “I’m here for you, and it’s okay to not be okay.”
It’s been interesting to see how my friendships have shifted during this time of mourning in my life. Friends who I thought were my closest confidants have faded into the background, not sure of what to say or what to do. People I thought would call or email have remained silent.
Then there are those who have been through heartache and loss have come to the rescue, offering me support and invaluable advice, encouraging me to keep putting one foot in front of the other. There are family members who have held me close as I cried. There are friends who stocked our fridge with food without even being asked, invited us over for a meal, sent cards and messages letting me know they are thinking of me. Those messages and acts of kindness have kept me going.
If you have someone who is hurting in your life, reach out. You don’t need to have the right words. The only words you need are I’m here. Sometimes that’s enough.