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Why Sometimes 'Silence Is Golden' When Supporting Someone With a Chronic Illness

Life can really knock you around some days. Sometimes while you are still reeling from the first punch, the second, third or fourth one come right behind it. You can’t even catch your breath, let alone get back on your feet before you are knocked down again, and just when you think it can get no worse, you get “encouraged” by someone who really should learn the art of silence.

People in general often say clueless things. Often these things have not been thought out before they come out, and they end up doing more damage than good. After my sister passed away, I cannot tell you how many people told me “God has a plan” or quoted a verse to me about trusting Him. I believe there is nothing wrong with speaking these things, in fact, we should encourage one another with His Word, but timing is everything.

After about the 50th time hearing this, I told my wife “If one more person tells me God has a plan, I am going to punch them.” (Don’t worry, I did not punch anyone.) While I was speaking a little tongue-in-cheek, it was frustrating. I was hurting, doubting, angry and heavy-hearted, and I just did not understand.

When I got my Parkinson’s diagnosis, I felt many of the same things, but this time, I was reminded again and again, “It could be worse.” Really? I thought. Because this really stinks, and the future is not bright, and the best you’ve got for me is “it could be worse.” Yes, they were correct, it could be worse, but this was pretty bad. I was struggling emotionally, spiritually, relationally, and God and I were having serious arguments about the ridiculousness of yet another health problem. “It could be worse” sounded much more like “suck it up” in those first few days.

Since then I have heard many, many more comments that probably would not have been said if the speakers had stopped to think first. I have been told I look fine, that my struggle is just physical, not emotional, that I should be thankful it is not cancer (which I have dealt with) – the list could go on and on. I know most people would not understand (and I pray they never do), how throwaway comments and comments not fully thought out can make someone with a chronic illness feel.

Today, months later, I would agree with some of these statements (except the “physical, not emotional” one), but during those first few weeks, I was just not there. Often people are uncomfortable with serious illness and want to find that “magic bullet” that will encourage the person and fix the problem. We may never stop to think about how it will sound or make the person feel. In the process of seeking to encourage, we end up doing more damage.

Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons once sang “Silence Is Golden” and that may be one of the most helpful statements in the English language. You see, sometimes, there is nothing to say, and there are no words that will fix the problem. Some of the most encouraging moments after my diagnosis came in the form of a simple and silent hug. Sometimes the person would look at me and say, “I don’t know what to say,” or would simply state, “this sucks (pardon the language)” and then give me a hug.

They knew that sometimes there is nothing you can say. There is no magic phrase that will fix everything and take away the pain. They were just there to love me, to simply sit and cry with me. Many times, these people had walked through some serious struggle themselves and had been on the receiving end of these words of encouragement. They understood that at that moment I just needed to be loved and cared for, and that often came in silence.

Yes, we should encourage one another and help each other remain grounded during storms, but we must be sure that what we are saying is helpful. Next time someone is struggling, just give them a hug, sit with them in silence, or be present in their life. Be OK with not offering some great nugget of hope or encouragement — chances are we have heard them all. Meet them where they are and grieve with them. Sit silently beside them and hug them as they cry. Let them know they are loved and you are there to support them. It will mean more to them than anything you could ever say. Silence truly can be golden.

Getty image by Babic Goran.