Knowing what not to say

Every well-meaning person should be required to take a basic class in pastoral care.

By Amy Butler

Those who don’t really care about the suffering of others may be excused. But anybody who feels they must comment from the sidelines on an occasion of human pain ought to have some training in pastoral care.

In the course of my work I’ve watched many well-meaning friends or family members try to ease a painful situation by offering a comment that causes even more pain. Witnessing situations like these is like watching an accident happen in slow motion: you can see the collision coming, but you can’t do anything to stop it.

I’ve recently been on the receiving end of both helpful and not-so-helpful commentary and got to thinking about coming up with a quick reference guide. These tips are for all of us who could benefit from a good class in pastoral care.

“There but for the grace of God go I.” This is probably not the most helpful thing to say. “Why not you?” wonders the hurting person. “Why should you be the recipient of God’s grace and not me?”

Anyway, if you are, why on earth would you ever point that out? In addition to causing even more pain, this comment raises unanswerable theological questions. So do “Everything happens for a reason” and “God is in control.”

“Just trust the Lord” is only slightly less onerous. While technically excellent advice, it generally doesn’t do much of anything to ease the pain of the present moment.

“Don’t worry, you’ll have another child/chance/job/whatever” also fails at the comforting task. This kind of comment invalidates the pain of the moment and suggests that I may very well be overreacting.

“Things will get better” similarly doesn’t rise to the top of the pile of helpful responses to pain. How exactly do you know things will get better? What if they don’t?

I don’t find “what goes around comes around” particularly comforting. For one thing, it isn’t true.

And, whatever you do, please don’t tell me the story of your cousin who caught the Ebola virus and miraculously recovered. This is not helpful.

Now that we’ve covered my favorite least-helpful comments, here are some expressions that might actually help.

“You are not alone.” No one can wave a magic wand and make it all go away -- even someone who is hurting knows that. But living through grief or pain can be isolating, and the weight of the pain eases just a bit when you can remember you’re not carrying it all by yourself.

Or try something like, “I’m sorry you’re going through this,” or, simply, “I’m sorry.” This tells me you recognize the pain I am facing and are not trying to pretend that it doesn’t exist. Thank you for that.

Nothing. Don’t say anything. Just show up. Hold my hand. Pass me a tissue. Make me a cup of tea. Remind me in tangible ways that the looming specter of my pain won’t scare you away. Put a real touch to the elusive idea I’m trying to remember: that God is with me, too.

Overall, what I learned in pastoral-care class seems to hold true. Keep it simple. Acknowledge pain. Avoid platitudes, especially patronizing comments involving God. Be sincere. Be present.

All of us have felt the pain of human life at one time or another. We made it through those times in no small measure because of people who reached out with love and care, people who were careful and thoughtful about what they said.

It would be great if all of us could know exactly what to say in hard situations, but the truth is, all of us say the wrong thing from time to time. A quick review can’t hurt.

And, seriously, a pastoral-care class might not be a bad idea. 

OPINION: Views expressed in ABPnews/Herald columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.