Offering ‘Understanding’ May be Wrong Response

Offering ‘Understanding’ May be Wrong Response

Jim Stinson, Former Consultant on Older Adult Ministries


“If I could change places with him, I gladly would. He has so much life left to live, I have already had a full life. I would be glad to die if it would save my son.”

He knows changing places is not possible. Yet he knows how he feels. He, among other things, is feeling helpless, which is apparent in his response to hearing his son’s diagnosis. What does one say in response to such anguish?

His son knows that he is facing serious medical issues and is very concerned how his 90-plus-year-old father will deal with the stress of not being able to help. What does one say when he says, “I know it is irrational, but I feel guilty he has to go through this.” How does one respond to such a feeling?

There is probably no one right answer to such questions. But there is surely, from where I sit, a wrong answer.

In short, any response that contains the words “I understand”are likely inappropriate. No matter how many experiences we may have had, no two are likely alike. No two people experience a similar event in the same way. In truth, no one truly understands what someone else is facing.

Some responses that might offer solace, without evoking an inner response (you just don’t understand, because you can’t) contain phrases such as, “I don’t know what you are feeling, but I want you to know I am here to listen,” or “I will be glad to pray with you, to hold your hand, to sit with you.” Any words or actions that convey the message of accompaniment to the person are the best that can be offered in such situations.

People who are wrestling with such terrifying situations need to know we care, rather than “we know.” Experience tells us that we can live with all sorts of unanswered questions (Life presents us with more than a few). It also tells us that when we have someone with whom we might walk through our darkest hours, who will simply listen, we often find our way.

“I will fear no evil, for thou art with me,” says the psalmist. The more we embody the presence of the divine, the perfect love, the one who walks with us, the more helpful we are likely to be. When words fail, as I learned as a child, “stop talking and start acting.”