As my family has traveled the journey of losing our son, quite a few people have asked me what’s the best thing to say to someone going through such a tragic experience.
We’ve all been in the situation: Someone we know has lost a loved one and we’re trying to figure out the perfect comment to lessen their pain, help them see the good amidst the suffering, or just not piss them off.
It’s difficult and a little terrifying.
Being on this side of the situation has given me sympathy for those who stumble through an attempt to reflect on a situation that is simply beyond explanation. And while I admit that I have allowed my frustration at some of the floundering to get the better of me, I have tried to remind myself that these well-meaning people are attempting the impossible.
While I try to think of the right thing to say to someone who has lost a child, my mind quickly fills with all the things you definitely should not say.
When you are sitting in the absolute worst pain you have ever experienced, well-meaning words like “You have a saint in Heaven now,” “God never gives you more than you can handle,” or anything that starts with the phrase “At least …” can easily lead to a further hardening of your already bitter heart, rather than comforting it.
So what can be said?
At my son’s funeral, the priest expressed it better than I could have. He said, “I spent the night before this funeral trying to think of the reason something like this would happen. I came up with nothing. And so I started to try and think of the something I could say that would lessen this family’s pain, even by the smallest of measures. Again, I came up with nothing.”
There is no magic formula, no perfect observation, no precise words that can ease the pain of someone suffering something so profound.
Instead, our answer comes from a word we use so frequently that we have forgotten its meaning.
Father Damian Ference, an amazing priest from Cleveland, recently shared with me the Latin roots of this frequently tossed around word of sympathy.
The prefix, the Latin “con,” means “with,” while the suffix, the Latin “dolere,” means “to grieve, or to suffer.”
And there you have it.
The perfect comment to lessen someone’s pain doesn’t exist, but being willing to suffer alongside that person is always an option.
For those who are experiencing the worst moment of their lives, con-dolence is exactly what they need: Someone who is willing to sit with us in that uncomfortable space, through the tears, the anger, and the hopelessness. We need someone who doesn’t succumb to the urge to fix everything, the wish to make us happy, or a pretense that everything is okay.
We need someone to suffer with us, to offer their true condolences. Only then can the healing begin.