A friend of mine was in the airport a few weeks ago. Life upon life had piled on top of her and something about traveling in that moment, about the sterile transition of the airport was the final straw. Not knowing what else to do, she burst into tears. She sat there sobbing, her head in her hands, her butt in one of the hard, plastic airport seats until it was time to board.
“I couldn’t understand why no one said anything to me,” she said later. “I just couldn’t believe it. I hope that if I saw someone sobbing in an airport I’d check on them, just to see if I could get them a tissue or a coffee or something.”
My cousin died suddenly last year, a tragedy that shook my family to its very core. I walked around like a zombie for the first few days after I found out. I cried without a moment’s notice, zoned out in important work meetings, couldn’t write a word. My shock and my grief swallowed me whole. I’d gone from fine to so not fine in the span of a phone call, and for a while, nobody seemed to know how to approach me.
A friend of mine’s dad was diagnosed with cancer last year. His friends didn’t seem to know what to do either. “We’d be hanging out and they wouldn’t say anything about it. It was like this elephant in the room. It was all I could think about but I didn’t want to bring it up. I didn’t want to bring down the mood, and so nobody said anything.”
When he was thinking back on it later, my friend said something that made me laugh and made me think, something that changed the way I think about approaching each other in hard situations.
“Everyone seemed to be afraid they’d say something that would make it worse. But it’s cancer. Nothing you say is going to make it worse.”
It’s such a relief how true that is, but we rarely think of it this way.
When we see each other going through hard times, when we see someone crying in an airport or in the girl’s bathroom, or we hear about a death in a friend’s family, or about a bad diagnoses, we don’t know what to say. We don’t know what to say to make it better, and we’re afraid that whatever we say will make it worse.
But the thing I’m learning is that we have to say something. We have to say something, anything, because when we say something, the saying something makes it better. The saying something says, “you’re not in this alone, I’m here with you.” The saying something is like taking a heavy bag from them. It says, “here, let me help you with this, I can carry it for a while.”
Every few weeks at church, we gather around someone and pray for something that’s going on in their lives. Sometimes I know what to say—I feel like I have the words to pray, or an idea of what to ask for. But every once in awhile the thing we’re praying for is so bad, so terribly, terribly sad, I’m at a loss.
So I started doing something in those situations—at first on accident, but now it happens regularly—and to me, it feels like the most helpful thing I could do.
I cry with them.
We surround the person and wise people pray wise things, and I just stand there and cry. I don’t say anything, don’t try to cobble together the perfect prayer, I just stand there, my hand on their shoulder, or intertwined with theirs, and I cry alongside them. And there’s nothing I’d rather do.
When things happen in our lives, when someone gets sick, or dies, or even when we’re just having the kind of day that bowls us over with its intensity, we don’t need much.
We don’t need the perfect words or the perfect prayer, we don’t even need advice most of the time.
What we really need is to just know we’re not alone.
Sometimes that looks like a stranger asking if we’re okay, and sometimes it’s a hug. Sometimes it’s acknowledging the cancer elephant in the room, and sometimes it’s your tears mixing in with mine. But more than anything we just need to know we’re not alone, that there’s someone who cares enough to show up and carry our burden with us for a while.
What do you do when you see someone going through something? What have people done for you?