If you’ve experienced a major loss in your life, you’ve probably had people say to you, “I’m so sorry. I just don’t know what to say.” So why is it that they somehow manage to open their mouths anyway?
Years ago, I was walking past the glass-enclosed surgical waiting room in the Houston hospital where I served as the chaplain. I stopped when my eye caught a surgical nurse with her arm wrapped around the shoulder of a tearful woman.
I shot an inquiring look toward the nurse, and she responded by motioning me into the near-empty waiting room. Feigning happenstance, she told the tearful woman, “Oh, look! Here’s our chaplain.”
The woman momentarily surveyed me and then resumed her crying. The nurse broke away to confidentially explain that the woman’s mother was actively dying from a catastrophic mistake made by a surgical team member.
After prefacing her remarks with an unprintable description of her hapless colleague, she admitted that the patient’s blood pressure was dropping and, “There’s nothing we can do.”
Then the nurse turned to the woman to say, “I’m leaving you with the chaplain to share some comforting words.” That was all she said, and “tag” I was it. She excused herself to the operating room and exited the same door I’d entered.
The grieving woman looked at me as if I was a magician or a medium planning a seance with her dying mother.
I was neither. I was just a person like the nurse; just human like you. The only “wisdom” I had was from Ecclesiastes 3:7, which says, “There is a time to be silent and a time to speak.”
So what time was it? A time of silence or speech?
If I exercised my right to remain silent, I risked the woman thinking I was an imbecile.
If I offered unwanted words, then I risked repeating the mistake of Job’s friends.
You may recall the Sunday school story about Job and the biblical book of the same name. After Job loses his family and farm, he endures endlessly unhelpful words from three friends.
Job finally responds by hammering his friends in this passage from Job 16:
“I’ve had all I can take of your talk. What a bunch of miserable comforters! Is there no end to your windbag speeches? What’s your problem that you go on and on like this?”
Needless to say, I didn’t want to get hammered, but what could I say to the grieving woman?
I pulled my chair to face her and then touched my fingertips to her knee. “I don’t really have any comforting words. There’s not much to say at a time like this.”
She dropped her head toward one shoulder, searching my face for the meaning.
“Can I offer a prayer?”
She declined with a shake of her head. “My mother wasn’t really religious.”
“I understand,” I said, inching out on my limb.
“Then perhaps I can just stay with you while your mother dies.”
I had held my breath before ejecting that last word “dies.”
The woman turned toward me, took a deep breath and exhaled the truth of her mother’s imminent death.
“Yes,” she said, nodding in a quick seesaw fashion. “Please stay.”
I was still sitting with her 20 minutes later when the nurse returned to tell us that our patient had died.
“What did we say then?” you may ask.
Wordlessly, we simply offered ourselves. Because at the end of the day when our words fail us, the only thing we have to offer is that incarnation of God within us.