When You Can't Find the Right Words

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We all struggle to find the appropriate thing to say. Whether its bedside of a terminally ill person, seeing a friend whom you just discovered is getting divorced, comforting a mourner, or trying to show support to someone after a miscarriage or stillbirth, it is nearly impossible in some situations to find the right words. Indeed, instead, many fumble, stumble and actually say something that causes more discomfort than comfort and more stress than solace. So what should be done, how should we react?


Rav Asher Weiss asks that it seems we have two verses that teach the same thing. In our parsha, we are taught, acharei Hashem Elokeichem teileichu, follow Hashem by imitating Him. The gemara also derives from another source, az yashir – zeh Keili v'anveihu, just as He is kind and compassionate so must you be. These two teachings sound exactly the same, but we know that can't be. We don't derive the same lesson from two different versus so what is the difference between the messages?


I once read an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association written by a second year medical student. He explained that he learned a lot of information, science and medicine in his first year, but there was one lesson that was more important. He writes of an experience going on rounds with his professor:


"I started by explaining that we were first-year medical students and that I hoped he wouldn't mind if I asked him some questions about his illness. Mr. B replied that he was happy to participate. I started at the beginning of his illness and he told me that he had been readmitted to the hospital for the treatment of a recurrence of his cancer. As he told his story, he pulled up his loose hospital gown and exposed his abdomen, showing us a scar from a prior surgery, which had resulted in the removal of an abdominal tumor.


As I proceeded with the interview, I concluded that aside from the nurses, we were probably Mr B's first visitors that day. I wondered about his family, which he had not mentioned so far. A bit later, I asked him if any of his family members had visited him since his readmission. In a stoic fashion, he answered that he had admitted himself to the hospital a week before to undergo his current chemotherapy regimen and he had pressed his wife to stay behind. He reported he did not feel it was worth his wife's time to stay with him. He reasoned that he would be home in a week's time and strongly encouraged his wife to avoid missing time at her job and to take care of their house.


On the one hand, Mr B's composure, strength, and determination impressed me. At the same time, it seemed paradoxical. How was it possible for him to cope with a cancer recurrence all by himself? My curiosity got the better of me. I decided to deviate from my memorized list of questions and to explore gently his professed independence. After taking a moment to find the appropriate words, I said, "Mr B, your courage has impressed me and I admire your determination and strength. Can you share with us what it is that is carrying you through this challenging period in your life?" The question had barely left my mouth when his expression changed. The hard lines of his face and the rigidity of his trunk seemed to soften. It seemed like my question had struck a deep chord within him. He briefly glanced up at the ceiling and after a few moments, he looked back and confessed, "The hope of going back into remission is what's carrying me through all of this." He then began to cry.


Earlier in the year I had observed Dr C holding the hand of another tearful patient. After that patient encounter our group discussed with her the pros and cons of a physician taking hold of a patient's hand. Some of us were more comfortable with doing so than others. Some students expressed concerns about the appropriateness of holding a patient's hand and whether doing so might be deemed an intrusion into the patient's personal space. After facilitating a discussion about the matter, Dr C concluded that a physician has to use appropriate judgment and be personally comfortable with holding a patient's hand before extending his or her own.


There I was sitting next to my crying patient. I was at a loss for words to respond to my patient's tearfulness. Instead, I took his hand and held it firmly. He gently squeezed my hand in reply. The room was briefly silent. Somehow, my gesture, I believe, seemed to confer a wordless message of support and encouragement. Eventually, after a few moments, Dr. C stepped forward. She thanked Mr B for his time. Our group wished him well, and we moved into the hall. I was the last to leave. As I did so, I looked back at Mr B, briefly bowed my head, and waved my hand as I stepped outside."


Rav Asher Weiss explains that there is a fundamental difference between the two lessons that seem identical. Following Hashem by imitating Him represents the first level. It means we should emulate His actions. Visit the sick, bury the dead, feed the poor, comfort the mourner, etc. This level could be achieved by actions alone.


The second lesson, however, in which we don't just follow Hashem, but glorify Him, requires us to give more than just our actions. We must give of ourselves. We must feel empathy, compassion and concern for those who are suffering. Following Hashem means taking care of His children. Glorifying Hashem means even more. It is feeling the pain of His children, identifying with their hurt, putting ourselves in their circumstance and seeking to sympathize with their plight.


As we begin the month of Elul, it is a time to not only work on our relationship with Hashem, but to improve the love, care and concern we show His children. Unfortunately, there are too many opportunities to give of ourselves and to display empathy all around us. Showing someone you feel his or her pain can bring tremendous comfort. Reach out to someone struggling financially, or to someone you suspect is feeling isolated or alone. Visit someone who is sick or recovering from illness.


When it is difficult to find the right words, don't feel obligated to say any. Like the second year medical student, we can convey more with a silent gesture of empathy, affection or support, than with uncomfortable platitudes. Sometimes, just letting a person know that you empathize with their pain and wish you could take it away is the greatest comfort you can offer.