“Sometimes people say something empty in an effort to be encouraging.” (Verneda Fike)
Sometimes the hardest thing to say is the easiest thing to say: “I don’t know what to say.” Sometimes we feel compelled to give answers when we don’t have them.
- It can be pride; our rep was built on having the answers.
- It can be fear; if I don’t answer, I’m letting someone down.
- It can be ignorance; I know what I know, but I don’t know what I don’t know.
Last year was tough for me. My older brother, Bill, passed away from pancreatic cancer in September. He was the firstborn of us six children. He was only a year older than me. And his passing was incredibly swift. Looking back on photos from earlier in the year, I can now see his illness was in progress. But we just thought he was tired, maybe the chronic health issues we seniors deal with post-middle age. But the undiagnosed cancer was already terrorizing his body, unseen beneath the surface.
We visited Bill in the hospital one weekend. He looked terrible, but we had hope that the doctors would find a suitable treatment to reduce his pain and set him on the course to renewed health. Of course, the ‘c’ word was ever present, haunting our minds. Our hopefulness endeavored to push it aside, but it lingered like a mugger hiding behind our mental trees.
By Monday, the worst was confirmed – inoperable, untreatable stage 4 pancreatic cancer. My wife, Verneda, and I planned to return the following weekend, but we postponed it because they would be moving Bill back to the house for hospice care, and we did not want to be in the way. We awoke Saturday morning with a text from Bill’s wife, Doris, that we (the siblings) should come soon if we wanted to see him. Verneda and I immediately dressed and left for Houston. About an hour away, we got the text letting us know Bill had passed. Tears.
We arrived at his home in Pearland. The coroner had not arrived for the body yet. After greeting Doris and their three sons, Doris asked, “Do you want to see him?” I certainly did. So Verneda walked with me into the master bedroom where my brother lay in the dimly lit room. I saw his face, at rest with no sign of the pain that had gripped him for months. And uncontrollable sobs escaped my soul. My wife gripped my hand harder and rubbed my back gently, as she said:
Which being translated:
Over the next weeks our family would hear a variety of statements common to the grieving experience:
“He’s in a better place.” (Of course. But I’m not.)
“I guess God just needed him more.” (Seriously? The All-Sufficient God?)
“God causes all things to work together…” (Sermon received. All good now. Thanks.)
All of these statements have to be translated into the simple language of comfort that my wife spoke; it has a very limited, but adequate vocabulary:
All you need to say to a grieving loved one is:
“I’m so sorry. I don’t know what to say,”
We hear that as:
It’s the language of Jesus:
“And lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”