Speaking to community groups is something I really enjoy. My latest talk is called “What Can You Say to Someone Who is Grieving?” and it’s been well-received. I was about to leave the church meeting hall when a woman approached me. She had a purposeful expression on her face.
“Your talk was wonderful!” she exclaimed. “But you forgot something. I kept listening for it, but you didn’t say it.”
“What was that?” I asked curiously.
“Silence,” she replied. “Silence as comfort.”
She told me a story about meeting a distraught woman at a memorial service. The mother of the deceased boy was so overcome with grief she could barely walk, and family members held her up as she left the sanctuary. “She was crying huge subs, sobs a child would make,” the woman recalled, “and walking towards me.”
The woman stretched out her arms to the grieving mother. “I didn’t say a word,” she explained. “I just hugged her.” While she was hugging the distraught mother, the woman waived family members back. They moved back and watched the scene unfold. Finally, the mother was able to stop crying. “So you see, silence can be comfort,” the woman concluded.
I thanked her and promised to add her point to my talk. Though I had spoken about listening as a source of comfort, I hadn’t mentioned silence. How can silence help? Dag Hammerskjold, the former head of the United Nations, described it as the “language of the heart.” His description resonated with me.
After unbelievable tragedy – the death of my daughter, father-in-law, brother, and former son-in-law within nine months – I turned to silence. Some days all I did was sit on the couch and sob. Other days I meditated quietly, focusing on one word, such as love. Years passed, and in the silence I found the strength I needed, strength I didn’t know I possessed.
How does silence help? While I can’t speak for others, I can speak for myself. When I was silent, my mind was working, reviewing my coping skills, identifying new ones, and putting in touch with myself. Silence allowed me to slow my thoughts, examine them honestly, and listen to my soul. Silence allowed me to ask painful questions, things I didn’t want to ask, but my soul answered, “You must.”
In the silence I found strength I the strength I needed. I continue to be amazed by the power of silence. Today, five years after my multiple losses, I know silence gave me a gift. Silence helped me create a new and happy life.
If you are grieving now I hope you turn to silence. Or you may be worrying about what to say to someone who is grieving. Like the storyteller, maybe you don’t need to say anything. Rather, you can offer a pat on the hand, a gentle hug, a concerned expression, and your tears. Silence can speak louder than words, and your concern will be felt in the quiet of the moment.
Knowing what to say is a gift, and so is silence.
Harriet Hodgson 2013