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When You Don’t Know What to Say


This morning my Facebook newsfeed was filled with updates from people going through such difficult, heartbreaking situations.  I spent thirty minutes, writing, rewriting, adjusting and writing again.   It was very difficult to think of the appropriate thing to say to my friend who is fighting brain cancer or my friend whose child is in constant pain or my friend who just lost her beloved father to ALS.


I’m so frustrated by this because I really thought that one of the few benefits of our crisis would be knowing what to say to others in theirs. But I find myself at a loss so often.  That’s when I land in the write-and-erase gridlock which leads to paralysis which leads to no response at all.  It’s ironic really, that some sweet sister fighting a fierce battle may be sitting at home thinking none of her friends care enough to respond when, in fact, many of them care too much to risk a wrong response. I’m sure many people who assumed I hadn’t thought at all about their struggle, would be surprised to learn how much I thought and agonized before clicking out of that little box without pushing “post.”


I’m sharing this today so that others will know they’re not alone in this fear of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time.  I am a writer and I often feel like I’m in the word weeds.  But I’m tired of letting fear silence my compassion, and so I’m learning.  I really hope I’m learning.  And while I don’t have an easy formula,  here are the guidelines I’m using when responding to people in pain:


1.  The closer you are to the person and the situation, the more latitude you have to speak freely.  If you are not a close, personal friend of the one in crisis, keep your comments brief and encouraging. Don’t offer advice unless it’s specifically been requested.  If you feel you have something important to share like a miracle cure or medical advice or a specialist they should contact, try going through someone who is closer to the person than you are, or send a private message. (And when you offer advice, always add permission for them to contact you for more information OR to disregard the suggestion entirely.)


2.  Avoid comparing your situation to theirs, even if your situations seem identical on paper. Honestly, I think it’s wise to avoid talking about ourselves at all in these moments…just focus on encouraging the other person.


3. I don’t think you can go wrong with, “I cannot imagine what you are going through. I am so sorry.”   


4.  Say something.  Because I really do think an imperfect something is better than well-intended nothing. People put stuff out on social media because – well, I guess I don’t know all the reasons people do anything – but I assume they put updates out there because they want to know they’re not alone. They hope that people will care and pray.  That’s all we need to do:  care, pray & love.  We don’t need to have all the answers or write the words that heal all their wounds.  The comments we say and send to people are, more than anything, a way of telling them:  I see you, I acknowledge your pain, and I’m here. We just need to be present.  And we can all do that, even though the words we wrap around it may feel risky and awkward – we can all be present.




With hope,



October 31, 2014 - 1:59 pm

Terry Hartke - Thank you for your spot on advice, Bo! Countless times I have agonizingly written a comment to someone who is in a tough situation….only to delete and not send anything at all. This helps!

October 31, 2014 - 2:36 pm

Angie - Yes! Thank you for this!
When my Dad and Grandma were killed I was in high school. I missed a week of school to be with my Mom and my brother who were still critically injured in the hospital. When I went back to school, most of my friends avoided me for several days. I knew these people loved me, and I knew they just didn’t know what to say, but I very much needed to be propped up by somebody… anybody… and there was nobody there.
I so much agree with you that saying something is so important. Even if it’s just a simple “I’m praying for you.” You just have no idea how much it helps to know that someone at least sees that you are hurting.

October 31, 2014 - 2:37 pm

Joyce Strong - Good words Bo. I would like to add, when on facebook, even hitting the “like” button is a good gesture. Yes, say something is so true. I remember vividly a friend of mine approached me after my dad died (so very many years ago),she had no idea what to say, but simply said “is it true your dad died?”. She spoke, she cared, and of all the words said hers is permanently in the memory bank of my heart.

October 31, 2014 - 4:12 pm

Sue Blake - Bo-you don’t know me, but I have been so encouraged in the past listening to you speak, and for that I thank you. I am so burdened for Steve, yourself and your family. I just wanted you to know I’m praying for all of you. In His love, Sue

October 31, 2014 - 5:38 pm

Linda j - Dear Bo, in my reading of Proverbs 18:13 struck me this morning in devotions. “Answering before listening is both stupid and rude.” We often feel compelled to say something, but often the best thing to do is listen well and sometimes speak to the pain, and sometimes the best thing we can do is cry

October 31, 2014 - 7:51 pm

Amy A. - As a friend who often flounders in the sea of “I’m not sure this is exactly what or when God wants me to speak,” can I please affirm point number 4? Because even if your friend hasn’t responded via social media, she is definitely SO grateful to be able to have the information she needed to specifically pray. Love you TONS and am constantly in prayer for you and your family, and am humbled and held accountable by the promise that. “…the prayers of a righteousness woman are powerful and effective.” Even if we can’t speak, we can continue to pray…

November 1, 2014 - 5:28 am

Dick & Teri - Bo & Steve & Family,
We cannot imagine what you are going through. We are so sorry. We pray for you regularly. With love.

November 1, 2014 - 11:43 am

Chris Newby - I was listening to Focus on the Family while driving to the max station to work and Focus on the Family was interviewing a pastor’s wife and mother of four who has terminal cancer. The doctor psychologist who was also on made the same point about saying something rather than saying nothing. How often I have felt that same really uncomfortable feeling of I won’t know what to say but also mercy and compassion for the situation. I am going to try to step out a little bit more and ask Jesus to make me honest and compassionate and not so many worries about the perfect way to say and do things.

November 1, 2014 - 7:36 pm

Krista - Last week when I was reading your posts about taking a break, I started to write a comment about a thousand different times. I thought I knew what I wanted to say but it kept coming out “wrong”. So I just deleted everything & instead said nothing. And now I’ve read this post and I’m encouraged to try again.

Here’s the gist of what I wanted to say in response to When The caregiver breaks & Taking a break from the battle:
I found your site this summer after I did the ALS ice bucket challenge. There was some negativity about the ice bucket challenge being silly and I was looking for validation that it was worthwhile –even if it just brought more awareness to ALS. I did the challenge, donated money & have been following your ALS battle ever since.

Thank you for sharing your innermost feelings about being a caregiver. It’s not easy to put your heart on the line & out there for the world to judge. Even for those of us who aren’t battling what you do on a daily basis, it was refreshing to read such honesty. Too often we sugarcoat things or downplay them so we don’t rile other people up. But we’re only human and life is hard. You write beautifully and I love reading your posts. And, while I have no idea just how difficult day to day lure is for you, I want you to know I think of you often & pray for you. Sending hugs and love!

November 2, 2014 - 5:08 am

kathy Gilbert - Thank you, Bo. Yes. I have done it. Our words can seem so right in the moment, as we write them down, but then when we read them 2 days later we can see that they may have been a little goofy.

Thank you for the great tips. You are such a great help to us.
Love to you…

November 29, 2014 - 2:30 am

Victoria - Excellent blog piece. My 16 year old daughter died in January and I need people to acknowledge my grief and loss.
Months ago I wrote on my Facebook page “If you meet me don’t worry about what to say, please just give me a hug.” That has worked really well – hugs have become the language of comfort for me.