What to Say in Difficult Moments

Today’s question (actually, a question from last weekend) comes from Yvette.  She writes: I just read a something where someone lost their 6 year old daughter, and some body said, “Sorry, God must have needed her more.” Excuse my French but, “Que se passe-t-il??? “. Why would God need a child more than their family? Why? To teach the parents some kind of lesson? It’s crud! I realize that we do not know how many days each of us has on this planet, but to actually say God needed them more? Why would someone say that? That would be a sure ticket for me to hate God if he’s really there.”

Thanks for the question Yvette.  Let’s see if I can start a conversation.

There are some folks out there who believe that religion has two purposes: (1) to provide clear cut answers, and (2) to fix things.  In order for individual to have faith, they (or someone around them) must provide either an answer for whatever is happening, or a fix for what has happened.

In the case you mentioned, it is impossible to do either of those things.  There is no clear cut answer for why the tragedy occurred, and there is certainly no fixing the pain the parents are feeling.

If that’s the case, then what is a person to do?!

Sadly, some people are so compelled to do one of the two things that they end up blurting out any number of clichés that are intended to provide an answer.  The “answer” they provide helps the individual feel better about themselves – since they had something to offer.  Rarely, do they stop and think about the affect their “answer” has on others!

What people offering a cliché fails to realize is that their “answer” does FAAAAAAAR more harm than good.

So what other alternatives do people of faith have other than offering forced answers/clichés, or “fixes”?

They can offer a ministry of presence, instead.  A ministry of presence isn’t offered in hopes of providing answers or fixes.  Instead, a ministry of presence is intended to facilitate the loving and healing presence of God in that painful moment.  A ministry of presence demands that the person of faith holds their ego in check (i.e. stuffs their desire to be the “expert” and offer the answer or fix) and instead offer their vulnerability.

When a parent in the scenario you describe cries out, “Why did God do this to my child?” – a person of faith can offer a physical expression of support (i.e. a hand on the shoulder or a hug) and say, “That’s a great question.  If I’m honest, I’m asking myself the same question right now.  I’m sure there will be time in the days ahead when we can share our experiences and insights in regard to the question you raised, but right now, I just want to offer myself as someone who can listen when you need to pour out your heart.”

Of course, it can be a HUGE challenge to follow up with that offer because sometimes a person in tremendous anger or pain will lash out and say things that are difficult to hear.  But your ability to hang in there and listen allows the person a chance to have their pain acknowledged (not answered) and heard.  Through that simple act of listening, a person can pave the way for healing and openness that can help those involved explore the questions later, when they feel ready.  As you start to explore those questions, please don’t be afraid to reach out and engage important resources like a pastor/rabbi/imam.

So how about you?  What do you think?

About Pastor Craig

I'm a 54-year-old who lives in Los Angeles, CA with his black Labrador Retriever named Max. I'm an ordained clergy person in the United Church of Christ. My passions include spirituality, politics, and sports (Go Houston teams, go!). I use my blog to start conversations rather than merely spout my perspectives and opinions. I hope you'll post a question, comment, or observation for me to respond - so we can get the conversation started!
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7 Responses to What to Say in Difficult Moments

  1. Bob Merkle says:

    I can think of no better suggestions than the one you articulated so clearly.

  2. ybabb001 says:

    I must say humans are bizarre creatures– sometimes I am disappointed with humans, but then there are other times they amaze me. Thank you for giving me a side I didn’t even think about– that they were only trying to offer an answer– where of course there is no answer. Maybe trying to settle within themselves some rest. I really do not like that cliche’. It needs to be abolished😔

  3. Beverly Marshall Saling says:

    Atheists have problems figuring out the right things to say, too. So much of the time our responses are about us and what we need (to express our beliefs, to feel helpful) and not what the person in pain needs.

    The best idea I’ve heard for responding to unthinkable sorrows is called “holding space,” where you tell the person that you know words can’t make it better, so you’re just going to be there with them and “hold open a space” where they are free to say, think, or do whatever they need to and you will love and support them without judgment. That seems similar to what Craig suggests above. It’s hard to do because it requires a certain level of selflessness, but often it’s the only “space” a grieving person has where they’re not expected to conform to someone else’s idea of what “appropriate” grief looks like.

  4. Stevie says:

    I don’t think there is anything harder than knowing what to say when someone has had a loss. Having been on the other side of that, as we all have, I try to remember that, and know that the person is doing his/her best and doesn’t mean harm.

  5. Cheri A. Moore says:

    I just finally stopped to read this – it’s been that week! My task just prior to reading this was to write notes to two lifelong friends who just lost their mother and a young woman I have known all her life that lost her grandmother. These are women of faith but I know from personal experience that that doesn’t solve the hurt. I have a horrible time trying to say what’s “Right” and just try to listen and say what’s on my heart. I lost my mom 12 years ago and still grieve the loss though I know she is in Heaven – I MISS HER! I thinks acknowledging the loss, the love and the hope we have in Christ are appropriate and bathe the entire thing in prayer.

  6. Sharon says:

    When I lost my husband, I can’t tell you anything anyone said to me. I do, however, remember all the people around me and all the ones who have stayed in my life, since then. I am so thankful for their continuing love.

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