When You Don’t Know What to Say

There have been so many clouds hanging over humanity lately: weather, politics, crimes, and sexism to name today’s headlines. I strive to see the peaks of light, but every once in a while, life overwhelms me with sadness and anger. The large-scale tragedies flood our world, magnifying the lesser moments of despair. Reflecting on my family being in harm’s way, then noticing my baby is no longer a baby, then being asked questions by my preschooler about violence, then getting cut off in traffic, all becomes a tsunami of events that leave me speechless.

If only it were as easy as turning off the news (something I’m working on), or reading a new self-help book (which I love to collect). By nature, I want to fix ALL the things. Perhaps as mothers we are used to this role. We are problems solvers 24/7. I (occasionally) successfully juggle the duties as our home’s CEO while working outside the home as well. When a lunch box is forgotten, the dryer breaks, or someone falls sick, I just have to figure it out—even if it is all happening on the same day that I’m alerted to a new hurricane brewing in the Atlantic. It can be paralyzing to hear the doom and gloom in the midst of the everyday chaos. We aimlessly wander through this darkness, accepting that there is little one can say to make it all better.

And so I say nothing at all.

I hug my kids tighter. I find a way to laugh until it hurts with friends who are finding their way as well. I research random tidbits, like what kind of rock is my favorite, and find new nonfiction about witches and vampires. I make time to dance with my husband in the kitchen when our song comes on. I explore the world outside of my head. But most of all…

I listen.

I seek the helpers, as they tell us to do, and then I ask them how they are doing. I cannot fix all the things, but I can listen—and that is empowering when I feel my weakest. The strongest thirst I can quench in this madness of life is through validating others’ feelings with a simple act of listening.

This is harder than you would think. When you’re a fixer, you want to SAY all the things: “Have you tried this?” “I have a book for you!” “You may want to see this doctor, try this wine, or think about ___.” It’s exhausting thinking I can manage a Dr. Abby column in my personal life, even if that was an actual job I wanted. I’m learning that when we see epic disasters unfolding around us, we all want connection, and the hard truth is that talking and listening are basic, time-honored cures.

As a speech-language pathologist, I talk for a living. More than the sounds a child is learning to say, I strive to facilitate communication and reciprocation. I cannot encourage a child to talk if they don’t see its power. As adults, we know this power well. We know how it makes us feel to be heard. Let’s become better facilitators of communication by listening when we don’t know what to say.

My preschooler is working on learning her five senses this week, and it got me thinking that maybe our senses can help us remember how to be better listeners:

  • See: Body language is everything. You know when your partner is looking directly in your eyes (intense!) or when there is a game on TV behind your head at the bar.
  • Hear: Say something, like “oh,” “sure,” “uh-huh,” or “mmmm,” to avoid awkward moments like when you keep talking but didn’t notice the phone cut out minutes prior.
  • Taste: Maybe it’s a fun, new tea or a recommended red wine, but having something in your hand and being hospitable are excellent ways to put someone at ease. I want my act of getting someone a glass of water to say, “I am here and see your needs.”
  • Touch: It’s your call on how this would look in a particular situation; I like to hug my friends or give a small rub to the arm when they’re sharing their feelings with me. You’ll know if it’s appreciated or if they need space. It’s also appropriate to ask first. For example, I don’t want to be touched when I’m processing a thought and I see touch as an interruption.
  • Smell: OK, I’ve got nothing. Don’t be an offensive perfume user or pas gas while someone is sharing their feelings. Wait until they need to laugh.

It used to feel like defeat when I admitted I didn’t know what to say. But then I went through some difficult times when people unintentionally said the WORST things to me. Being laid off, losing my father-in-law, and having a traumatic first delivery all within months brought some doozies. I may write a book about what not to say to someone when…

But I reflect back on that time in my life with admiration for those who just listened. They filled my glass literally and figuratively, and for that moment I didn’t have to be worried about the inappropriate reassurances someone wanted to pass along. I was heard, and the healing began just as the rays of sunlight will always peak through the clouds.

The holidays are coming up, and we’ll be surrounded by joy but perhaps some sadness as well—all exclusive of any possible worldly events that may develop. Let’s be a step ahead of it all and validate each other on this journey in the absence of judgment. Let’s listen to our friends and families complain and unload because love can be found in listening, and that speaks the loudest of all.

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