I was reminded again recently, when you don’t know what to say; say nothing.
We sat at a table and listened as a patient tearfully explained how hard things were for her, how her husband wasn’t listening, how she didn’t want things done for her, even though they might be well meaning, ahead of her ability to accept the changes, and desire the help. We heard of the difficulty she was having, grasping her new stage IV cancer diagnosis, wrapping her head around the fact that the clinical trial failed, all the chemo trials were exhausted, and she visualized her life draining away.
When someone is suffering, it is incredibly difficult to resist throwing out a life line. But she wasn’t asking for this. She only needed to express her grief and sadness, to us, who could listen with empathy. How hard it is, though, to hear someone’s travail without jumping in to rescue. But sometimes our greatest work is done in silence; just listening to hopes and fears expressed as a person processes coming to terms with dying. Platitudes and advice are not usually welcomed.
It’s a human experience: being alone, shaking our fist and calling out in deep distress, in the dark of the night or on a mountain top. We are not always expecting or even asking for an answer, just needing to say the words. Still, all of us tend to squirm in our chairs when a conversation becomes too uncomfortable to hear, and we want to fill the silence, and talk about ANYTHING else.
My trainee and I sat together after our nursing visit, and she said, “I felt like a fish out of water. Way out of my element. I didn’t know what to say.” That’s when I shared what a professor, many years ago, shared with me. Say less. Listen more. Learn to sit comfortably in silence. Let a person sit quietly, allowing tears to flow, without feeling the need to interject something.
Like the song says, “You say it best, when you say nothing at all”.
It’s really okay to say nothing.