What’s the Right Thing to Say?

What’s the Right Thing to Say? A Question that misses the point.


In This Moment

Hi there!

I’d be willing to bet that you might just have assumed we fell of the edge of the world. But no… still here, still travelling. we’re on a trip out west to BC, and soon return to Costa Rica.

I’m not committing to weekly articles, but I do have a couple of them that have been burning a hole in my head.


An honest discussion, a heartfelt sense of "being with."
An honest discussion, a heartfelt sense of “being with.”

So, last year we spent 3 months in a condo in Costa Rica. The condo featured a 5 minute walk to the beach, nice pool, nice other guests.

One guy in particular turned into a friend, and when he wasn’t messing around on his computer (something I never do, wink, wink) we’d yack about life. He’s a year or so younger than me, and also retired, with family back in the States.

Well anyway, Darbella and I got back from somewhere, and he was just leaving the rancho… an outside eating area… and said, “I know you’re retired, but I think I may need to talk to you…”

A bit later he returned, and gave me the back story.

Seems he had a brother and sister-in-law, and both had had a cancer scare the year before. Both had come through chemo with a clear bill of health. The brother had called my friend the night before to say that his wife had a newly discovered growth, and they’d know this evening if her cancer had returned.

the right thing to say
Just ask a question!

My friend was both sad and worried, and asked, “How do I know the right thing to say?”

Interesting question, yet never the point.

Once upon a time, back in my days as a minister, I got called home… a couple in the congregation had just lost their 8 month old to SIDS.

I got to their house a few hours later, to turmoil. Family hovered, but congregated nowhere near the grieving parents. Then, one would walk quickly by, and toss out a “It was God’s will,” or “He’s in a better place.”

I chased them all away, stood in the middle of the room, said, “I have no idea why this happened and have no pat answers. I’m hurting for you two, and I’m just going to stand here and hold you, if you’d like.”

They were off the couch like two shots, and they cried on my shoulders for 20 minutes. Then, and only then, we could sit down and start to sort out the details for the funeral.

I told that story to my friend in Costa Rica.

I followed up with, “You don’t know anything for sure, so call your brother and tell him you’re sad, and worried (which is what he told me he was) and will of course come right home if the report is bad. Then, ask your brother what he needs, and let him know you’re there for him.”

Because, you see, there is no “right thing to say.” When people ask for that kind of pat, “right” line(s), what they really want is to put something between themselves, their emotions, and the other person. A hedge against dealing with the reality and the pain.

I’ve dealt with thousands of clients, and not a few parishioners, and I never had a clue what any of them “needed to hear,” otherwise known as the right thing to say. Amazingly, though, if I asked them what they needed, almost all of them told me, and none of them asked for something impossible, or even difficult to do.

Most wanted to be listened to. Many wanted a hug and a shoulder to cry on.

In all of my years of working with people, no one has ever asked for a platitude, or a “God’s will. better place” inanity. What people want is for you to just stand or sit there, quietly, be open, be willing to accept them as they are, while not hiding what’s up for you.

In other words, to be real.

And also, not to be a diva or a drama queen, and try to out-grieve the grieving, but that’s likely another article.

As to my friend, he did call and offer to “just be there,” and let his brother and sister-in-law know he was sad, and worried, and hopeful, and waiting to hear. He asked his brother what he needed, and what he got back was, “I just need you to listen to my pain, and be there for me if I need you.”

And six hours later, he heard the diagnosis.

A benign bit of scar tissue.

No right words needed. Just honesty and curiosity.

About the Author: Wayne C. Allen is the web\‘s Simple Zen Guy. Wayne was a Private Practice Counsellor in Ontario until June of 2013. Wayne is the author of five books, the latest being The. Best. Relationship. Ever. See: –The Phoenix Centre Press

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