What to say when you don’t know what to say

Your friend just got a serious diagnosis. You feel helpless and upset, and don’t know what to say or do. How can you make things better for her? David Anthony Spencer, Jr., chaplain at WellStar North Fulton Hospital, says, first and foremost, to remember that you can’t make things better. “You can’t take away her pain,” says Spencer, “but you can comfort your friend.” How?

“Tap into that feeling of distress. It’s OK to say, ‘this is awful; I don’t know what to say.’” That gives your friend an immediate connection, letting her know you’re joining her journey, with emotions similar to hers.” Spencer advises thinking about what you would want if you were in your friend’s situation. “Then take the initiative: Make that call, send that email, buy a gift card, cook a meal. If your friend has children, arrange and supervise a play date for her kids; if she’s in the hospital, put together a basket of toiletries and snacks for her spouse to have on hand during visits and stays; volunteer to be there when the doctor rounds, so you can be an extra set of ears, and take notes. There are many ways to offer comfort.”

And there are ways to not offer comfort. “Because we’re in pain for our friend, we sometimes unintentionally dismiss the emotion,” says Spencer. “It’s just too painful for us to dwell on. For example, if a couple has lost a baby, we might say, ‘it’s OK, you can have more.’ Or if a parent dies, we say, ‘she’s in a better place.’ Instead, we need to mourn with our loved ones. Yes, that couple can have more children, but we need to mourn the baby they lost. Yes, a parent may be in a better place, but she’s not in this place with the people who miss her.”

And what about that familiar “call me if you need anything” response? “When someone is hurting, they don’t know what they need,” explains Spencer. “Be proactive: Take a risk, and make an offer. Most people will take you up on your offer of help, if you’re specific.”

Spencer encourages anyone in the hospital at North Fulton in need of support to reach out to him through their care team. “As an interfaith chaplain, I’m trained to support those of all faiths, and those with no particular faith,” he explains. “We want each patient to have a holistic experience.” Though his job is to provide spiritual and emotional support to patients and team members, his role at North Fulton Hospital is much larger. Spencer helps patients prepare Advance Directives, which document their wishes for medical care if they are not able to speak for themselves (see Calendar for a free Advance Care Planning Workshop in September). He connects with community clergy of different faiths so they can be available for patients requesting support from their faith tradition; and he performs weddings and blesses babies in the hospital.

Spencer specializes in meeting patients where they are, and doing anything to connect with them and support them during what are often some of the most challenging times of their lives. Sometimes that support takes the form of playing cards, watching a movie or reading a book. “I had a teenager who was with us for two weeks,” smiled Spencer. “She wanted me to read a book on horses, then take a test on it. I made a B.

“Our hospital is sacred space,” says Spencer. “I’m always humbled to enter that space and be a part of our patients’ journeys.”