You've heard me rave before about Shauna Niequist, author of Cold Tangerines and Bittersweet. Although she's only written two books, she has a writing style that if someone were to ask me who is my favorite author, I'd have to say Shauna. She sucks me into a relevant and raw place. One that continually brings peace and perspective.
With all the distractions of life, I'm slowly making my way through Bittersweet. As I flipped open the book last night, I skimmed back over a chapter that I had marked a few months ago as one that hit a chord with me. And my husband. It's title, "Say Something." I hope it moves you like it did us.
"When something bad happens, people say the wrong things so often. They say weird, hurtful thing when they're trying to be nice. They say things that don't hurt until later, and then when they do do begin to hurt, you can't get the words out of your mind. It's like a horror movie: everywhere you turn, those awful words are scrawled on every wall.
But there's something worse than the things people say. It's much worse, I think, when people say nothing. When I lost my job, embarrassed and hurt and tender, I remember exactly who walked the other direction when they saw me at church and who walked toward me.
The same was true with my miscarriage. I can tell you to this day what people said, much more hurtfully, who said nothing at all. Some people said really helpful, really loving things. Aaron's aunt sent me a letter that was so thoughtful and so healing. Dear friends from Texas and New York sent flowers. My friend Courtney told me that when she heard the news she cried, and the image of my old friend crying on my behalf touches me every time I think about it. Women I didn't know well at all sent me tender messages telling me about their experiences. My friends Katie and Kevin gave me a book that put words to my feelings and helped me move forward.
Some people didn't know what to say, and they said just that, "I heard what happened, and I don't know what to say." That is, I'm finding, a very good response. Because there was another group of people who said nothing. I love them, and I know they love me, and the point is not what they did or didn't do, exactly. They point is that they taught me something, and it's this: SAY SOMETHING. Always say something. Now when a friend loses a job or when a heart is broken or when the test results are bad, even when I don't know what to say, I say something.
I don't know why a few people chose not to say anything in those seasons. But I do know that I've done the exact same thing too many times. I can remember some of them, and now I regret those moments very much. I remember someone mentioning an illness, a hospital stay, a treatment. I didn't really know what they were talking about, so I didn't ask questions. I remember hearing a friend who lost a grandparent, and I prayed for them but couldn't find their address, so I didn't send a card. I remember getting a text about a friend's miscarriage, and feeling like a text back wasn't the best response. I told myself I'd call, but I didn't call for several days. I'm ashamed of those things, and now, however awkward, however stilted, I try to say something, every time.
I know you're busy. I know we forget sometimes. More than anything, I think, we so desperately don't want to say the wrong thing. It's impolite, we've been told, not to bring up nasty topics like loss and sadness. But if we don't bring it up, what are we left with? We talk about the easy things, the happy things, the weather, and then we leave one another totally alone with the diagnosis or the divorce papers.
When we're mourning, when something terrible has happened, it's on your mind and right at the top of your heart all the time. It's genuinely shocking to you that the sun is still shining and that people are still chattering away on Good Morning America. Your world has changed, utterly, and it feels so incomprehensible that the bus still comes and the people in the cars next to you on the highway just drive along as if nothing happened. When you're in that place, it's a gift to be asked how you're doing, and most of the time the answer comes tumbling out, like water over a broken dam, because someone finally asked, finally offered to carry what feels like an unbearable load with you.
Our friends Darren and Brandy came over this summer and after dinner, after the kids went to bed, they asked about the church we left and the jobs we left. We hadn't known them for very long and hadn't talked about all that with anyone for ages. I started with a very short version, not wanting to bore them, wanting to move quickly to a lighter topic. And then Brandy said, "We actually want to hear the whole store, We want to know you and understand who you are because of that season." We stayed up so late that night, and as I went to bed I realized what a gift it was to be asked. I'd never bring that season up, because it's a mess, totally not something you bring up with new friends. But it's part of our history, and it meant something to me that they wanted to understand it.
Say something, every time, and ask the simplest questions. How are you? What was it like? What can I do? In my experience, you can never go wrong with flowers and food, even when someone insists that there's nothing at all you can do. I'd never come out and ask you to bring me a meal, but in a difficult season recently, we ate my mother-in-laws potato thyme soup and Jessie's coconut milk ice cream and September's chicken casserole for days on end, and we were thankful every time we opened the fridge and didn't have to think, our hearts and mind so full and troubled.
Flowers, I think, are always a good idea; new life in a vase. During a season of great loss for us, friends sent a gardenia in a beautiful glazed celery-colored pot. My track record with keeping plants alive is awful, but I tried my best and then one morning, maybe two weeks later, I came around the corner and there is was; one perfect bloom. I almost cried, with relief that I hadn't killed it yet, and also for gratitude. From a thousand miles away, these friends and their kindness reminded me that new life always follows death.
A man I've known all my life recently lost his job - his job at the church where my husband leads worship and where my dad is the pastor. I was at the drugstore buying printer cartridges and suntan lotion, without makeup and in my pajamas. He didn't see me. I thought about leaving him alone, letting him shop in peace and not have to face me unexpectedly, one more person from church, one more person to explain it to.
But instead I walked down his aisle and said hello. After we talked about both our families, I told him that I'd heard about his job and that I was so sorry. I asked how he was doing. I told him that I'd been through a kind of similar thing with my job a few years ago, and that I might understand some of the feelings he was feeling. He said it was good to hear from someone who'd been through a similar thing and was still standing. We talked for a while about what's next for him.
I know that I certainly didn't say anything profound. But I said something. I said something, as a way of being thankful to the people who said something to me when I needed it. I said something because I remember how much it mattered to me.
I don't believe that God's up in heaven making things go terribly wrong in our lives so that we learn better manners and better coping skills. But I do believe in something like composting for the soul; that if you can find life out of death, if you can use the smashed up garbage to bring about something new and good, however tiny, that's one of the most beautiful things there is.
I learned to say something. And I offer my apologies for all the times I didn't say something. I'm really sorry about that. For a whole bunch of not good reasons, I didn't know better then. But I know better now.
So when there's bad new or scary news or when something falls apart, say something. Send a note. Send a text. Send flowers. And if you don't know what to say, try this; "I heard what happened, and I don't know what to say."