What to Say, When There is Nothing to Say
I know wind. I was born in West Texas and grew up and coached in Oklahoma for most of my life. That Spring day, in the early 80’s, was the windiest day I have ever experienced. My good friend and fellow coach and I were working out our kids in the weight room when I saw the pole vault pits blow across the football field like they were the tumbleweeds of my west Texas youth. I said it was windy. I left my buddy and took a couple of players to help me put the pole vault pits back where they belonged and tie them down. When I got back to the weight room, my coaching buddy was on the ground outside the weight room and his wife was standing over him. She gave me a look I will never forget. She had just told him his brother, sister-in-law, niece, and nephew had been killed in a plane crash.
My friend’s legs just stopped working. I picked him up and walked him to his wife’s car. I told him I would take care of our players and would be by his house as soon as I could get there. I had no clue what to say or what do to do. They don’t teach you in college how to handle these situations. I was, to say the least, over my head and overwhelmed. As much as I cared about my friend, selfish thoughts took over my brain. What could I say, what could I do, how can I respond to this disaster? I had it 100% upside down and my focus in all was in all the wrong places.
After I finished the off-season practice, I went to my friend’s house and sat with him while he tried to come to grip with the horrible tragedy that had taken place. He made those tough phone calls to friends and relatives and visited with people that were dropping by to support him and his family. It was uncomfortable to see my friend suffer. Every time someone would knock on the door, it would start all over again. As much as I loved my friend, all I wanted to do was get out of that house as soon as possible. So when his brother arrived, I bolted out of there as fast as I could. Between that day and the day of the funeral, I only went back to that house once, for just a few minutes, to drop off some things for his kids. I hid from the awkwardness, the grief, and the pain. That week is still a blur in my mind; however, one memory is etched into my brain forever. Walking into church for the funeral and seeing four caskets up front, two big ones and two little ones is a picture I’ll never forget.
About five years later, our church in Oklahoma City, The Quail Springs Church of Christ, had experienced far more than its share of grief and tragedy. During that horribly rough stretch for our church, our preacher, Ronnie White, delivered the most memorable sermon I have ever heard. It was called, the same thing I have called this blog, “What to Say When There’s Nothing to Say.” That sermon not only changed my life, it changed my approach to dealing with the hardships of death and loss that inevitably occurs with any group of people. I have been a football coach for 42 years. I have attended the funerals of 11 players, 1 trainer, and 1 manager. While I am far from perfect in dealing with these horrific losses, Brother Ronnie gave me a plan to do better than I did with my friend so many years ago.
1. Go! Be there! Don’t hide. If you are a friend of someone who has suffered a loss, they need you to be there with them. Some want to talk, some want silence, but most of them need someone close to just be there.
2. Don’t think you need to say something to make them feel better. There is nothing you can say. The best we can do is to say, “I’m sorry for your loss”. It sounds shallow and trite, but there are no words for these times that can heal the pain.
3. Avoid the obvious, “if there is anything I can do……….” Most people are uncomfortable in the best of times asking for things. Find something they need done and do it. Mow the lawn, organize food delivery, clean the house, raise some money. Search for a need and then do it. Mona and I over the years during these situations have bought a cheap ice chest and filled it with waters and sodas and leave it at their house. Nothing to return or be responsible for.
4. It is not about me. It is not about my lack of knowing what to say or what to do. It is not about my discomfort or awkwardness. It’s not about my feelings of helplessness. It is 100% focused on the people that are hurting the most. Put them first.
5. Every situation and circumstance is different. What works in one might not work in others. LISTEN. Be attentive. Look for hints and look for opportunities to be as helpful as possible.
We are in the “people” business. Success, failure, wins, losses, triumphs, and tragedies are a part of what we do. There are no shortcuts or cookie-cutter approaches to dealing with tough circumstances. The best we can do is the best we can do. I am reminded of what Abraham Lincoln once said: "I do the very best I can, I mean to keep going. If the end brings me out all right, then what is said against me won't matter. If I am wrong, ten angels swearing I was right, won't make a difference."