“What we’ve got here is (a) failure to communicate” is the statement made famous by the prison warden in the 1967 film “Cool Hand Luke.” It’s a line I find myself repeating when a reader’s interpretation of my column sounds like something pulled from a rabbit hole.
I’ll usually respond with: “What I meant to say . . .,” but it’s rare that the reader will renege and let me know, “Oh, now I understand.”
Such are the limitations of written communication.
Perhaps nowhere is communication more important than in the moment we attempt to convey sympathy or understanding. As a chaplain, I’ve noticed there are three ways people can show concern toward someone who has experienced a tragedy or a loss in their lives.
First, there is a written form. Inevitably, someone introduces written communication expressed through a greeting card. Discussion arises on who will pick the card. What is appropriate? Something direct or something poetic?
With the card purchased, everyone signs it. Some are artificially relieved with the feeling they’ve done something. And yes, it’s something, but it’s very limited in what it can convey.
Secondly, I encourage people to talk to the bereft, because speech doesn’t have the limitations of the written word. If someone misunderstands your speech, it can be repeated, slowed, rephrased, softened or strengthened. Or you simply can try again later.
There are good things to say to those who are hurting that will help them express their grief. I advise people to simply state their observations.
You can say things such as: “I know you were very close to her.” “I have no idea what it must be like for you.” “People are going to miss him, especially you.” “All of this is unreal. It must be hard to accept.”
The best conversations share memories of the deceased. By offering stories and anecdotes, you show willingness to keep memories alive. If you didn’t know the deceased, it’s a good idea to invite the sharing of a story or photo.
But even speech has its problems. The list is long of things not to say, such as: “It was God’s will.” “I know how you feel.” “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.” “Give it time.”
Unfortunately, the fear of saying the wrong thing often will silence people and leave the grieving feeling neglected.
That’s why I favor personal presence as the best form of communicating your sympathy. Presence trumps writing and speech.
I often quote the story of the nurse who introduced me to a woman whose mother was bleeding to death in our operating room. Knowing there was nothing I could say to make it better, I simply asked her if I could sit in reverent silence while her mother died.
She readily accepted.
People who share their presence are people who go beyond the impotent offer, “If there’s anything I can do, let me know.”
When my father died, my sister anticipated these cliché offers, so she prepared a signup list of errands and chores that invited people to be present in the grief process. People who were sincere in their offer stood up and showed up. One man even mowed my widowed mother’s lawn for a year.
By communicating willingness to disregard our comforts and be present following or during the moments of tragedy, we ensure there is no failure to communicate God’s love.