This past spring, I was asked to make a presentation to the Caring Ministry Team at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in Stillwater, where I spoke on “Caring Presence, Caring Words, and Caring Acts.” Because caring is something all people do many times in their lives, whether or not they are affiliated with a congregation, or whether or not they are part of a caring ministry, I thought I would share some of my ideas. In a previous article I wrote about Caring Presence, today I write about Caring Words.
Caring words can be tricky. When we are with someone who is sick, suffering or sad and trying to be a caring presence, we sometimes feel we should be able to offer the perfect words that will make them feel better. After 25 years of providing pastoral care, I still haven’t figured out what those perfect words would be. And honestly, I don’t think they exist.
We might think we are offering just the right words and, at best, the person isn’t in a place to be able to hear them and at worst, your words completely miss the mark. I have discovered that often, when it comes to caring words, sometimes less is best. “I’m so sorry . . . for your loss, or for this diagnosis,” rather than “I can’t believe Joe is gone. Why is it that the good die young?”
A heartfelt “I’m so sorry” conveys your caring, without imposing your own meaning on the other or on the situation. It also leaves space for the person to say more if they wish.
In my last article, I spoke about how our own awareness of the hurts we have experienced can be a resource for our empathy, which helps us recognize the kind of things the other person might be feeling. But expressing our empathy in words requires some care. It is rarely helpful to say, “I know exactly how you feel,”
because, of course, you can’t know how the other feels. A more helpful thing to say might be “I can only imagine how hard this must be for you.” If you say the latter, you are acknowledging how trying this situation must be for them, while leaving an opening for them to say more.
I hope you noticed a trend here: caring words promote dialogue. Your caring words, in their briefness and simplicity, are meant to acknowledge the difficult things the other faces, to express your caring and concern, and to open the door for further conversation with you, either now or at another time. Some of the bad examples I have shared don’t open the possibility of further dialogue because they either represent a conclusion that you as the speaker have made, or the other person might think that you can’t possibly know what it’s like to be him or her facing their current hurt.
We live in a verbal society that puts so much emphasis on words that moments of silence make us anxious, so we start talking. I’m suggesting that there are times when caring is best conveyed through silence. We over-value words and under-value how important it is to simply show up. Just being there, your caring presence, says more than thousands of words can.
There are caring words that I do think can be helpful, the words of prayer. You can offer to pray with the person, but you need to respect their decision if they decline. If they say yes, then ask what they would like to pray for. This is another place where there can be misunderstanding. For example, the person might want a peaceful death for their loved one, and your prayer asking God for a miraculous healing really misses the mark.
You don’t need to be intimidated by the prospect of praying with another. Your prayer doesn’t have to be as profound as the prayers of the great spiritual divines, or even your denominations prayer book. A prayer from the heart can be the most caring words the person could possibly hear.
Caring words are a simple way to tell the other that you are there for them. Your caring presence and caring words let them know that you believe God is there with them, too.
Bob Furniss is chaplain at Lakeview Hospital and Lakeview Hospice. Read Part III of the Caring trilogy, “Caring Acts” in an upcoming edition of the Stillwater Gazette.