In the past week, I've read some of the simplest words being written to bring comfort to strangers and it only reiterates what I wrote. Do not be afraid to run toward the fire, even if you do so without being noticed.
Everyone knows those situations where you are at a loss for words. I think death is one of them. I think any tragedy is one. Be it anticipated or unexpected, what do you say to someone who is suddenly missing a loved one from their lives permanently or has experienced a serious life changing event.
A friend gave me the best advise -- something I believe she read in a book. When someone loses a loved one and you don't know what to say, sometimes simplicity is best:
"I'm sorry for your loss."
It's a handful of words that say much more. It acknowledges the situation, the hurt, the sorrow, the pain and the confusion a person is feeling. And it simply lets them know you care. That for one moment, you didn't just continue on with your life as usual, but you stopped to consider them.
I think the same applies to cancer, a sudden accident, a chronic illness to any tragedy that alters someone's life forever. They all create that moment that can leave someone at a loss for words; a moment where your heart stops beating if only for a second, and those that surround you must circle the wagons.
Even if death has long been expected and suffering has been so hard to watch, the end is never easy and leaves a trail of sadness that time often never fills. When you pick up the phone and it's the unexpected and the unwanted on the other end of the line, it sucks the life out of you. You either know what to say or what to do or you don't.
We Americans are so protected from tragedy. Everyone knows someone, but not every family has been touched. We live in our modern world complete with top notch medicine within reach, cars that are big and safe, rules and regulations that tell society how to behave and enough food to keep our bellies full. We can lock our doors at night, set an alarm, sleep with a gun and know that 911 will rally the troops if we need them.
But it doesn't take an NPR junkie to know that so much of the world lives with the daily reality of tragedy. They are hardened to it in ways we cannot know in our first world life. We can stand speechless in a moment, dumbfounded by our own complacency.
When it was me being the bearer of bad news, I had that chance to see people in action, and often inaction. I didn't expect every one on my Facebook friends list to call or write or knit me a blanket. I didn't expect anything from anyone other than a prayer or a thought. But as the days and weeks and ultimately months past, people emerged with a level of care and attentiveness that left me amazed. And friends, close friends that I thought would surround me with their love, dropped back into the shadows of silence.
I didn't have the energy or desire to chase them down with my feelings. I didn't force the subject or volunteer information in a fishing expedition for their concern. I just sat back and watched and finally came to the conclusion that so many of us just don't know how to handle tragedy. We don't know what to say when something bad happens, so we opt to say nothing at all.
For some left watching, their instant reaction is to run right into the fire. They are the ones born with that empathetic gene I wish every soul had. They are not afraid and are like superheros with capes made with threads of solid love. They pour out the simple gestures that can lift you up and carry you along for the duration.
For some, their own fear of contagious tragedy makes them silent. If you deny it, it can't hurt you. If you've never experienced it, you don't know how to process it. The fear of pain is far greater than the gift of hands-on compassion, and they step away. I was surprised at the silence sometimes.
And for some, they are frozen in that moment but fight so hard to do the right thing. Their brain runs wild with compassion while they wait for their body to take action.
I now find myself on the other end of the phone. I now have to watch as some of my dearest friends sit in a room and have the air sucked out for that painful second by that one horrible word I've heard so many times over the last year. Having been down that same road magnifies the pain I feel for them. To know their thoughts and that fear of the unknown makes my heart break even harder. It makes me angry. I can't get angry over my own experience, yet theirs almost sends me into a rage.
And yet here I sit, at a complete loss for the intimate words I want to give them. My mind is running but my mouth won't move. Of all people, I now know how powerful it can to reach out with the smallest gesture. Simple words and quiet actions go so much farther during periods of disbelief. I tell you so you can know for the next time.
A handful of words or a silent act of love will radiate brighter than you can imagine.