When You Don’t Know What to Say

“The friend that holds your hand and says the wrong thing is made of dearer stuff than the one who stays away.” –Barbara Kingsolver

This quote has always spoken to me, and I was reminded of it recently when a friend going through a rough time said I “always know the right thing to say.”

I laughed to myself, as that sounded ridiculous to me. While I might be good at offering a perspective I fail to absorb in my own daily life—denial is truly a gift, my friends—most of the time I just ramble and hope that something might stick, that I might be able to help ease just a smidgen of pain.

My problem is that I’m a “fixer.”

Unfortunately, there seems to be a string of pretty crappy things happening lately that proves we all have “something” that we’re dealing with that’s out of our control.

There’s no greater feeling of helplessness than to know that someone you care about is sick, financially strapped, in pain—physically or emotionally—or, let’s be honest, dealing with death—the reality of their own or that of a parent, a friend, or the horror of the loss of a child.

There are no “right” words, and at some point you realize that things happen to you and happen around you that can’t be fixed.

And it’s not your job to fix them.

I think a lot of people unintentionally ignore these things at times, not because they don’t care, but simply because they can’t “fix” them and have no clue how to react. Those who are sick or aging aren’t necessarily the same people we’ve known them to be, and selfishly, we want them to be the people they were before they got sick, before they got old, before they became so… mortal.

The realization that things will never be the same—and that you can’t fix it as such—is enough to make you stress yourself out in an attempt to save the world or conversely stay at home curled up in a ball, not dealing with it at all.

But just as much as you don’t want to deal with it, I can guarantee that the person who is sick or struggling doesn’t want to deal with it a million times more—but they do, often with courage and grace.

I think that in and of itself can be intimidating, the fact that you are lucky enough to be in a comparatively better position. The strength of those who aren’t can be inspiring beyond belief, but it can also make us question how we would be if faced with such a challenge.

It takes courage to face the unknown, but it’s much easier to do so when you’re on the right side of the coin, to be the one who has a choice.

But the fact is that as strong as they are or appear to be, they’re probably still scared. So we put the guilt aside for wanting them to be the people they were before they got sick, before they got old, before they became so…mortal. Because at their core, they are the same people.

And you know what?

They know that you can’t fix things, and most don’t expect you to. They have no choice but to deal the hand they were dealt, and sometimes they just want you to hold that hand.

They don’t want to do it alone.

That’s one thing I—and you—can fix.

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40 responses to “When You Don’t Know What to Say

  1. this made me cry.
    thank you for always having the “right words for me”.

    of all the incredible stuff you write, this is going to forever be my favorite “Abby Post”. well next to that one to your Yoga Pants. 😉


  2. I concur, you do always have the right words and this post proves it. You can hold my hand any day! Or is that every day…

  3. I have a neighbor who has been dealt almost every.single worst thing you can face, all at once, this summer, who is going to be here at my house today. I have no idea what to say to her, other than to tell her I’m here and give her a hug. Thanks for the right words for me, at least.

    • Wow. That poor woman. But like you said, she just probably wants to not be alone right now. There are times when we all want to hide, but there are times when we need to reach out. I’m glad you can give her some comfort and distraction.

  4. This hit me. Since my FIL was diagnosed with cancer, I try my best to visit more. While he was always a cranky old woe is me doomsday is coming type person, obviously it has kicked up to a whole other level. I know I can’t fix anything. Obviously not the cancer, and not even any of the minor issues. But I can listen to him talk about it. And then I can momentarily take his mind off of it by making him laugh. That’s really all I can do. And I think it’s enough for him for now.

  5. i definitely don’t think anybody expects you to “fix” them, or their situation. But if you can make their day just a little big better or brighter, or less lonely, then that’s still worth a ton.

  6. I am awful when it comes to saying the right things. My mom is a rockstar at it — so good that she’s actually a bereavement mediator. I didn’t get that gene, but I’ll be there for any of my friends, stumbling through my pitiful words of support.

  7. I find that most of the time, people just want someone to LISTEN to them. They just need to bitch, whine, moan, and complain about whatever it is that is bothering them or going on in their lives at that time. It makes them feel better, not so alone, or like you have stated… just not feel alone. Its not always about “having the right thing to say”, it may just be more of a way of saying, “Thank you for listening to me.” I have called my Mom and said, ok, I just need to complain, do you have a couple minutes just to make all the right Mommy noises?

    We have learned to do that for each other. ….. now to try to teach the husband unit this very thing.

  8. Thanks for all the times you have held my hand. You rock!

  9. This is so moving, Abby. I’m the same way! It is so hard to feel out of control of life sometimes. Hugs!

  10. amen sister, amen (not in the formal religious sense)
    wise wise words my dear. thank for sharing them and for “holding” our hands.

  11. Abby, this is beautifully written. It made me cry when I read it much earlier today, and I’ve been thinking of it on and off since then. Thank you for writing this. It is going to help me with something that is going on in my life right now.

  12. Lovely post ! And so true. When I lost my dad to cancer…I wanted so hard to ‘fix’ it, so that he could be saved, but well, soon the realization hits you that you can’t fix everything in life and have to just deal with it. Going through pain, makes you a better, wiser person i think.
    There were friends who stayed by me and friends who stayed away, coz they didn’t what to say and when they did meet, they pretended it never happened. It took me a long time for me to let go of the bitterness and understand that they just didn’t know what to do or say.

  13. When I was 10 my best friend’s grandfather died. I told my Mom that I didn’t want to go to the funeral because I didn’t know what to say. She looked at me sternly and said ‘Girl! Part of growing up is knowing that you aren’t always going to know what to say. It’s also going to funerals! You walk up, hug the person, and tell them you are sorry!’ Pretty good advice.

    • Your mom sounds like a wise woman! Lately I’ve been thinking that I’m tired of being an adult, but unfortunately, we really have no choice. 😉

  14. Sometimes it feels almost as painful for the other person who can’t fix it. I say almost because we know it’s not nearly as bad. I too am a fixer and hate not being able to make things better. My other problem is I’m an absorber. I call myself the Sponge. I have to work really hard not to take on all the stress and pain from other people. It really helps no one.

    • I totally understand the sponge metaphor! I have to work not to be overwhelmed by other’s pain, be it a friend or someone I hear about in the news.
      Your empathy is gift!

  15. It’s true! Even if you can’t fix the problem, having someone weather it with you is a great fomfort.

  16. This is absolutely wonderful.

  17. Reblogged this on definedivineuk and commented:
    Love this!

  18. Your friends are lucky to have you.

  19. Thank you Abby. As one of those people dealing with things people don’t know how to handle, you not only clearly expressed my needs, but you helped me understand why even some long time family and friends have disappeared or keep trying to get me to be who I was “before.” When you get sick and lose your career and your independence, it changes you. When you can’t even find a safe place to live, it makes you crazy and fearful. When the entire system is not protecting you as it should (worker’s comp, disability, fair housing, ADA) you want to hide from everything. And it becomes to much for those around you too.
    You made my cry for them too, and I am grateful.
    Keep writing the good, the funny and the difficult, because you are so very good at it.

  20. “There’s no greater feeling of helplessness than to know that someone you care about is sick, financially strapped, in pain—physically or emotionally—or, let’s be honest, dealing with death—the reality of their own or that of a parent, a friend, or the horror of the loss of a child.
    There are no “right” words, and at some point you realize that things happen to you and happen around you that can’t be fixed. And it’s not your job to fix them.”

    That’s true. And incredibly difficult. I hate when anyone I love is suffering, and much like you, I want to be able to fix it.

    “The friend that holds your hand and says the wrong thing is made of dearer stuff than the one who stays away.” –Barbara Kingsolver

    I LOVE THAT QUOTE – because it’s absolutely perfect.

    When I am having a horrible time – I need all of the love and support I can get – but I don’t expect anyone to say the “right thing” – its when they say nothing – or ignore /avoid me – that’s what really hurts.

  21. Thanks for this. I was dithering about going to a funeral yesterday. It was a half day commitment and a long drive just to attend. It was also on a weekend I had hoped to keep free to deal with other things. I went and it was right. I knew it was right all along and was about 80% there. You got me over the finish line. Keep the good thoughts, squirrel musings, and gnome sightings coming.

  22. What a beautiful and thoughtful post. Who are you and what have you down with Abby? Just kidding. I think I love your open and raw posts just as much as your witty banter and comedic displays.
    I’m like you. I’m a fixer, sometimes to a fault. I keep trying to save the world, and I keep learning I can’t.
    Although I do strongly believe it’s better to do the wrong thing than nothing at all. I still remember, and even struggle to forgive, the friends that did nothing (not a phone call, not a card, not an email) when my Hubby and I were going through a personal health crisis. I try to understand they might have been too scared and possibly uncomfortable to do anything or offer any type of support (the Hubby is very much like this), and I do truly appreciate the random people, who seemingly came out of nowhere, to offer encouragement and a helping hand. I will never forget those people.
    Your post today brought back some mixed emotions. Thanks.

  23. I’m a fixer too and I totally know what you mean. You want to help but sometimes the help you can give is just being there. It’s a good lesson for all of us.

    And when all else fails, just make farting noises with your hands. It gets a laugh every time.

  24. You know that phrase, “Cometh the hour, cometh the man”. Well I sometimes think it applies to this situation. Many of us, and I’m sure you as well, have more character than we are aware of, and it only becomes evident when faced with the situations you describe. Ultimately, before the fading light and cruel circumstance we can all be overwhelmed, but it is often in this same moment that we discover our own dignity and courage.. Seeing in it another is always humbling, and what you want to say is in your eyes before the words form in your mind.

  25. Oh…this. THIS. I am such a fixer. All the time. I need something to fix, something to enhance, something to make better. I will do anything to feel like I’ve made some sort of fix. And there are often times that have zero ability to be fixed. Those times kill me inside.

  26. I think it is nothing more than human nature to want to ‘fix’ anyone you care about. That can be their health, their mental health – which I think can be worse – it is so hard to see people you love miserable, their job, anything really. If we didn’t have the desire to fix them it would be a little worrying. You just need to try to remember that you can support people and be there for them as much as possible but that to stay the strong person they need you cannot let yourself go to the crazy place! And you are right, just being there helps. I really enjoyed your post.

  27. I love this piece, Abby. It’s some of your best writing ever. It really resonated with me as a dear friend recently suffered a very traumatic event and, like you, I too am a “fixer.” Thanks for pointing out that just being there can be enough. Hugs!

  28. Part of having Aspergers is, for me, that I never know the right thing to say to someone who is upset. I’m too awkward, and not much of a hugger/toucher. The best I know how to do is either sit quietly and try to mirror their emotions (for instance if they are feeling sad I will try to show empathy by looking sad myself) or I try to find something to make them laugh and cheer them up. Sometimes one of these turns out to be the right thing to do, but other times I am so far off!

  29. As much as I love your humor, I love the poignancy of this because it’s just real. Thanks for sharing with your readers. 🙂

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