What to say when you don't know what to say
When we share our pain with someone else we are taking a risk: that they will be able to hear it without rejecting us. When we hear someone else share their pain, we may struggle to know what to say. We like to fix problems, but some problems can't be fixed, and this is uncomfortable. Here's an extract from the conclusion of my book, which considers stories without happy endings:
'In a 2013 interview, shame researcher Brené Brown describes an incident where she feared she had made a research error. In going over the notes of interviews with women who had discussed their infertility, she noticed that in every case the experience was recounted in the past tense. She went back and contacted a random sample of these women to check that their interviews had been logged correctly. In every case, they explained, “I can’t speak for the other women you’ve interviewed, but in the midst of my struggle, I could have never talked to you about it. I could only talk to you about it because I’ve come to some resolution.”[i]
In February 2015, I started the journal which eventually became this book. By that point, I had been trying unsuccessfully to conceive for just over a year. In the first entry, I reflected on how easy it seemed to be for other people to get pregnant – and yet I realised that all I was seeing was a person with a baby. I had no idea how long that baby had taken to conceive, or what difficulties there might have been, because this is not the sort of thing people talk about. I wrote:
I'm certainly not planning on publishing this … until I'm pregnant, or until I give up hope. I don't want people asking me if we've had any luck yet, or asking intrusive questions about our sex life. I can't bear the thought of an audience while I'm going through the monthly cycle of hope, despair and renewed hope.
I looked forward with anticipation to the day that I would be able triumphantly to publish my journal as a blog post, ending with a pregnancy announcement. That day never came. Instead I acquired a readers’ card for the British Library and began writing this book in earnest.
Then, with the adoption process came renewed hope, and I anticipated that my children would finally arrive, after all this time, just as I finished the manuscript. I would be able to present my story from a place of resolution and happiness after all. This, too, will not happen. I write these words less than a fortnight before I am due to submit this manuscript to my publishers, and there is no end in sight – our adoption journey goes on and on. This story resists being neatly tied up.
Some things have been lost forever. I do not pray the way I used to pray. I do not contemplate other people’s tragedies in the detached way I used to, secure in my relative comfort and able to sympathise from a distance. I no longer believe that God is in control. I am wounded. And just when I think the wound has healed and become a scar, something happens and it reopens, raw and bleeding, and the serenity I thought I had finally achieved is stripped away.
At first, I insisted that I was not angry with God, only at the fertile world. Then I realised that I was furious with God. Now my fury is still there, but it is directed elsewhere. My anger is not directed at God anymore, but at the bad theology and the insensitive practices which can prevent people from knowing the boundless love of God poured out on the cross, a love which longs to embrace all people along with their pain, terror, and rage. When we tell people God is in control, what they often hear is that God is causing their pain. When we tell people to trust God, they realise they must dry their tears and cool their rage – these feelings are not acceptable. When we tell only stories of triumph in the face of adversity, what people hear is that, unless they have a happy ending to offer, they must keep quiet.'
Instead of trying to make it all better with a comforting, religious-sounding explanation, here are some alternatives:
Be there. This is the greatest gift you can give someone in their pain. This is what God does for humanity in Jesus: God with us. Drop everything and show up.
Listen. It sounds simple, but it is not easy. If you are listening to someone who is grieving, it is unlikely you will be able to do anything to give them back what they have lost. Holding that tension - listening, without trying to make it all better - takes energy and concentration. But if you can do it, you will help your friend start to heal.
If you want your friend to know God's presence in their pain, asking questions (sparingly) may be more helpful than making statements. Rather than asserting 'God is in control of this,' perhaps ask, 'where is God for you in this?' And if their answer is 'nowhere', that may be OK for now. Maybe you can trust God on their behalf until they are able to reconnect with God for themselves.
A Pastoral Theology of Childlessness is available to preorder here. Register for the Zoom book launch here.
[i] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QMzBv35HbLk, accessed on 17th January 2021.