Saying the Right Thing

Separation. Divorce. Financial difficulty. Foreclosure. Bankruptcy. Inability to conceive or carry pregnancy to term. Special needs children. Surgery. Cancer. Death. 

From this weighty list, we can all name a handful of our family, friends, and acquaintances. Pain seems to surround us. We struggle to cope. Find outlets for expression. Retain our faith.

But the age-old question exists, What do I say?

I always feel impotent when it comes to words in the moment. I think of wonderful, caring, uplifting things after the fact, but when I first learn of someone’s struggle, I’m at a loss.

Recently, I have embraced two new strategies that have given me more confidence to speak and have had a positive effect on the person I’m trying to share with.

Circle of Proximity

Circle of Proximity

1. The circle of proximity. (A cousin shared this with me and it’s simple, something that we all intrinsically know, but something that in the moment it’s so easy to forget.) Using the diagram, imagine that the tragedy is in the bulls-eye. Surround it line by line with the people closest to it. For example, if someone has died, John Doe is at the center. His wife, children, and siblings are next. Close friends. Extended family and colleagues. Acquaintances. The rest of the unrelated world. Once you place people on the circle, figure out where you are. This gives you a great visual for your proximity to the tragedy.

Here’s the key to saying the right thing: Support inwardly. And emote on your level or outwardly. If John died from lung cancer and you are a co-worker, it is not uplifting for you to complain to his wife about his smoking. If that bothers you, express that opinion to other co-workers or someone unrelated to the scenario. John’s wife needs to hear how much you enjoyed working with him and that he won’t be forgotten.

Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the LORD your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. ~Deut. 31:6

Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the LORD your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. ~Deut. 31:6

2. You are not alone! After all, our human need is to be loved, valued, accepted for who and what we are. While I may not fully comprehend what it means to have a parent with cancer, to lose a sibling, to come to terms with a divorce, I can assure them that they are not alone. That I love them. That I am here if they need me. That I can laugh or cry, tell stories or be silent. That they don’t walk this path alone. That their journey is not solitary. And that One greater than me walks with them too.

May we seek to comfort those who are in need!

What advice would you add?


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