Question Seven: “Can I say something that helps?”
Introduction to the series
Much of the last year was thread through with considerable loss. My brother, Dave, battled a fatal brain cancer for nearly eight years and he died this last January as the result of a fall that was due in large part to his disease. He would have been 58 years old in October.
In reaction to Dave’s quest to find a durable faith and supportive friends, I wrote a book called The Dave Test, which was just released by Abingdon Press. The book distills Dave’s quest into ten questions that any of us can ask ourselves, when we are in one of life’s hard places or when we are trying to support those we love. Whether that hard place revolves around divorce, death, unemployment, abuse, illness, or some other misfortune, I hope that the questions I ask and the answers the book offers will help us all sit a bit more easily with life’s ragged edges.
Over ten weeks I plan to apply the questions in The Dave Test to our preparation for the holidays. At this time of year for many there is — as the expression goes — “no cause for celebration.” But I am convinced that there is reason for hope and I don’t believe that we need to navigate the holidays alone. I hope that the book and this application of The Dave Test’s principles to the holidays will help ease the sense of isolation that is so much a part of life for many of us at this time of year.
This week’s Dave Test question: “Can I say something that helps?”
The major holidays are behind us, but we live in their shadow in January and February. The days are often marked by more funerals than at other times of the year. The social calendar that kept us busy gives way to long, quiet winter days without distraction or diversion. And the seemingly fresh promise of change gives way to days that are filled with the same losses and challenges that occupied our attention before the holidays began.
For example, one of our relatives lost her husband in the days between Thanksgiving and Christmas. She couldn’t bear to face family gatherings over the holidays. But I am sure that the months to come will be harder. Somehow the promise of the holidays never seems to endure, does it?
I am convinced that many of us want to be good companions in moments like these, but we worry that we won’t know what to say. I made a different set of suggestions in The Dave Test. Here let me make another series of suggestions in the same spirit:
One, don’t labor under the assumption that what you say can wipe away the realities of another person’s life. You can’t change the way things are with the words you use and you shouldn’t let your inability to change reality keep you from being a good companion. Even if things will never change for the one you love, he or she still needs your friendship.
Two, put yourself in the other person’s place. What would comfort or encourage him or her? Something that takes her reality into account? Yes. Something that acknowledges the unwelcome character of his struggle? Yes. Something that acknowledges that she has suffered real loss? Yes.Far too often the things we say are said to comfort ourselves, rather than comfort those in need or we say something that is generically comforting. It takes time and empathy to understand what another person has lost and then comfort them in ways that take that loss into account.
Three, don’t say anything that isn’t informed by love — a sense of love for those you seek to comfort, and more importantly, a sense of God’s love for those you seek to comfort. When those we love have suffered loss, the last thing that they need from us is blame-laying, false hope, or glib suggestions. What they need from us is durable love.
If we do these three things, rather than try to fix reality, comfort ourselves, or let anything but love govern what we say, we are more likely to say something helpful. And, remember: More than anything you might say, those who are in life’s hard places need to know that they are loved.
For more on taking The Dave Test during the holidays:
Question One: “Can I say life sucks?”
Question Two: “Can I give up my broken gods?”
Question Three: “Can I avoid using stained-glass language?”
Question Four: “Can I admit that some things will never get better?”
Question Five: “Can I give up trading in magic and superstition?”
Question Six: “Can I stop blowing smoke?”
To read more about The Dave Test, or to order a copy:
(Click on the book to order)