The world is too much with us; late and soon. We are surrounded by suffering. It will follow us until we leave this earth. There is no cure while we are yet here. Grief is coming. To you. To me. To every single one of us. Over and over again, until the end. (I’m as cheery as Eeyore. I know.)

So while we yet suffer, we should suffer together. We are to weep with those who weep. We are to bear one another’s burdens.

The Devil knows that a real balm in Gilead is the one-another-ing of the saints. And so, he and his minions set up all sorts of things to further isolate us. One satanic stroke of brilliance in our era of share-and-shame has been the beastly articles titled something along the lines of “Ten Things Never To Say To Someone Who…” You know these. These give a list of offensive comments one might to say to someone who is overweight or getting divorced or adopting a baby or marrying a person of a different ethnicity or eating at McDonalds or enjoying The Real Housewives.

Satan knows the power of law. And his favorite law is that which is created by humans to push away other humans.

So we find ourselves paralyzed by fear. It’s a brilliant Screwtape-esque move. We are unable to bear one another’s burdens because we are rendered mute. If we speak, we might violate this new law of saying something we should Never Say, so we stay over here, keep to ourselves, and let our fellow humans suffer alone, magnifying the effect that suffering has on all of us.

I’d like to make a plea.

Say something.  

In August of this year, my baby child underwent a fairly serious surgery. She is four years old and the princess of the universe. The tubes between her kidneys and bladder weren’t working properly, causing life-threatening infections. Doctors went to work—diagnosing and fixing her tiny body. The process required invasive tests, followed by big ole incisions and an uncomfortable number of hours on the operating table. The team of medical heroes worked hard—they had something to do in the face of her (and our) suffering. Lucky bastards. The rest of us were relegated to waiting, to praying, and to saying things.  

There is a great idea that has been articulated recently in our landscape—the idea of a ministry of presence. You don’t have to say anything at all, ye who are paralyzed by your fear of saying the wrong thing. You can just be. And this is so true. Jesus went to Mary and Martha and wept with them over Lazarus. Weeping with those who weep often means exactly that. Keeping our mouths shut and being present can be very much a gift of one-anothering.

However, God created through the spoken word; he revealed himself with a whole bunch of words; and at the climax of history, the God-man did not die in silent dignity. He cried, “It is finished.” The work of redemption would have been completed, of course, if Christ had not said a thing, but aren’t we so glad that he did. God loves words, and so do his people. Words are of great value, and silence is not always the answer.

On the day of my baby girl’s surgery, my husband Paul and I knew that we were looking at five hours or so of just waiting. And only the parents were allowed in the surgical waiting room. So, we would wait, and, after a dear visit from our pastor, we would wait alone. Waiting is not a strong suit of either of us, both being firstborns who idolize efficiency. We packed our bags—Bibles (of course) and Harry Potter (of course) but we also brought a whole stack of tasks to accomplish. But, I did not get to one task. Or even to Hogwarts. And barely to my Bible. My phone never stopped buzzing. Our entire world was compelled to cover us in words. And those words spoke life into a very anxious Mama heart. They kept me. Each and every text message was a ministry of presence. Our people bore our burdens with us, through words.

It is not lost on me that a child having surgery is a type of suffering which is easier to navigate than other suffering out there. In other situations, it can be very hard to enter in. One of my little brothers has struggled with mental illness since childhood and with drug abuse since he was a teen. He is often homeless and occasionally incarcerated. This situation is the source of all manner of suffering for my family. It is hard, and the most saintly of people do not know what to say. I don’t blame them one bit—I don’t even know what to say. And, yes, occasionally, people have said absurd things that weren’t at all helpful. I could write a fantastic, tragically funny “Things Never To Say To Someone With a Mentally Ill Family Member” article. But, remember, I’m boycotting those. I’m convinced that well-meaning folks are silent, in large part, because they are terrified of appearing on such a list. The moments where it’s been hardest to bear the burden of my brother’s trials have been the periods of time when no one has said anything at all for oh-so long. I would rather fumbled words than silence. In fact, those who love me would be hard pressed to offend me. If I know a person to be on my team, even the most absurd comment is felt for what it is—an attempt to come alongside.

So, back to my original plea: Say something. Be present. Through words.

I thought I might be able to help with a list of my own. This is not meant to be more law. Promise. I simply share things that have always been helpful for me to hear when I have suffered. I offer it with one hope—that it might relieve the fears of those who want to speak but don’t know where to start.

Types of Things One Might Say to the Suffering  

I am aware. Whatever your comfortable and natural variation, say it. The men in my life are particularly good at this.

Thinking about y’all today.

We love y’all.

You’re on my mind.  

I’m remembering that the divorce is being finalized later this month. Loving you, friend.  

I am at a loss for words as you continue to navigate your mama’s diagnosis, but you are on my mind.  

This type of communication is really helpful if you are an acquaintance, fellow parishioner, colleague, or otherwise not in an intimate circle. It is not empty. It is sincere and it is enough. If you don’t know what to say, start here.

I am willing. Offer yourself—and, importantly, free the recipient from a burden of response.

HeyI’d love to drop off supper. Or do something else helpful. You name it. If I don’t hear from you, no worriesjust wanted you to know that I am available and would love to serve.

I saw that you signed up to bring cookies to the class party. I’d love to do that for you and take that off your plate. May I? If making the cookies will be helpful for you, I so get it! Just a thought.  

I have the water-proof cast-cover we used after Sally broke her arm. Love to pass it on. Can I send it to work with John? But, if that will clutter your world, I so understand! Either way is great. Just wanted to offer.  

In moments of acute suffering, especially of those closest to you, just do the thing and let them know you’re doing it. A favorite from a close friend recently:

I am putting bagels and cream cheese on your front porch in an hour. (Unless that’s a really bad idea?)  

I didn’t respond. We ate the fire out of those bagels, and our burdens were borne in every bite.

I am praying. Use wisdom in what else you tack on to this and to whom you say it, but in my experience, those suffering want all the prayers anyone is willing to offer.

I am praying for you right now.  

Our family prayed for y’all at supper tonightwe are privileged to be on the team!

The Sunday School class mentioned you during prayer requests this morning. You are loved! 

If you are close to the person, relating specific prayers is a great blessing.

Prayed this morning for today’s drain-removal to be free of pain. Would love to know an update on y’all as we continue to prayif and when you can, of course! Don’t add to your plate with updating me!

Oh, how lovely to know that the saints are storming the gates of heaven with our needs on their lips.

You are precious. Hospital rooms, jails, addiction recovery centers, funeral homes, depression, grief—they are all isolating. The suffering feel alone, and they begin to doubt their value. This is exacerbated because, as we manage suffering, we are often unable to be whom we are used to being, to do what we are accustomed to doing. In suffering, we often lose that which, rightly or wrongly, reminds us that we are needed. Speaking to people of their value is a great salve.

I was thinking today about how much you make me smile. You are such a gift.

You have been such a strong father through thisit is an inspiration to so many.

The way you are supporting your family right now is beautiful to behold.  

Again, if you are close to a person, specific memories are manna in the desert.

Remember that time we drove around to four different YMCA swimming pools with five cranky children, finding every single one of them closed, and then ended up just squirting them with the hose and pouring wine at three in the afternoon? I was just telling a friend about it and laughing this morning and thought you might like to laugh too. You’ve been my favorite laughing friend for years.  

I am still here, still aware, still willing, still praying. Don’t be afraid to bring up hard things after time has passed. The suffering haven’t forgotten their suffering. Don’t be daft—it’s not prudent to remind folks of their griefs in the middle of a cocktail party or at the Friday night football game. But a note, email, text, or private word is not going to make pain worse. Quite the opposite—the suffering often begin to feel guilty for being a burden when pains linger. Letting friends know you remember can be quite affirming.

I remember that your sister died this time last year. I am praying for you as you grieve through that anniversary.

I know it’s been three months since surgery. How is your pain? Is there anything you still need?

You mentioned you were anxious about attending that family wedding after everything that happened. How did it go?  

Our words will not cause the suffering to cease.

But, they can, by God’s grace, minister to other people.