On First Words

When you go out on a first date, there are those unavoidable awkward opening moments: What do you say to each other? How do you start out without saying something phony, stilted, or Heaven forbid dull-witted, while at the same time not give the wrong impression? If you think that is a tall order, try telling the average person to open a conversation with a very sick or dying person, whether a friend, relative, or stranger. As one of my commenters in last week’s post said, asking a chronically sick person “How are you?” does not exactly fit the bill.  In the land of the sick, the meaning of words and expressions we take for granted start to buckle. Take “Happy birthday,” or even worse, “Many happy returns of the day” when you know darn well and they do too that this might be their last time to celebrate it. Holidays are tricky, too. Who wants to hear “Happy Thanksgiving” when they are not hungry and cannot join in a key family event?

My commenters last week brought up and debated this question of what to say when walking into the room of a loved one who is very sick and may never get better, and may even die relatively soon. In a way, such a question is loaded with assumptions that will lead to the wrong answer. Now do not worry; I am not about to launch into the cliché of, “It’s not what you say, but how you say it,” because that is not right either. There are at least three assumptions in our question: First, that we are charged with saying anything in particular, second, that we are the ones who need to set the stage for the conversation, and third, that we have to say the correct and most clever thing so that the sick person will feel better or at least not worse after our visit.

Let’s be honest. The real issue behind this question and our fussing over saying the right thing is that we want to avoid hinting at You Know What. Imagine, please, that you wanted to convert to another religion, and your friends knew that, but you thought discussing it would make them uneasy, and they assumed that you would be uncomfortable talking about it. So you and your visitors would go out of your way not to refer to anything touching on that topic, especially when a religious holiday was coming up. The result would be the opposite of what you and our friends would want: closeness to each other. This result is the same in all avoidance, even when You Know What begins with a “D.”

Not that we are to stalk in and say, “I bet you want to talk about your last days.” The key is to say very little and at the same time let them know we are inviting them to talk about or not talk about whatever they want. A tall order you say? Not for them. For us. It takes courage to walk in, and maybe do nothing more than give them a hug and say, “I just wanted to stop in and be with you right now,” followed by our own pure prolonged wordlessness. As the burden of pretense is lifted, they will discover what they have needed to say to you at last.

2 thoughts on “On First Words

  1. It is a difficult balance to find, you’re right, and that “pure prolonged wordlessness” can make us squirm! But silence definitely pays off in creating space for the other to say what is needed, rather than filling it with our own awkward noise. Well said, Karen!


    • And remaining silent is not as passive as it may seem. Salespeople know this. Detectives know this. Being quiet can really be a powerful tool for others to talk. For chaplains, of course, we hope this power is used only for good.


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