There Are No Words

There Are No Words

The days and weeks following my husband's traumatic brain injury were filled with messages, prayers, advice, and thoughtful condolences from the many friends, family, and strangers who had heard of his awful attack. Overwhelmed with shock in those early days, it was hard to make sense of all that people had to say, although I certainly appreciated each and every outreach of kindness.

It's challenging to know what to say when an event takes place that is beyond reasoning, especially when it involves a tremendous amount of suffering. In the past, I've been one to recoil in these situations, never wanting to offend someone with a message that might be construed as trite or cliché. I've always believed that in instances of real pain, those affected deserve a real message, something that digs deeper than, “You're amazing!” or “This too will pass.”

And while I've rarely found myself offended by someone else's attempt to communicate empathy in these situations, I have often felt that the words we offer to one another in times of suffering fail to get at the heart of the experience. Maybe that's because so many of the phrases and messages we've been taught to deliver carry the unintentional consequence of closing a conversation instead of opening it. For example, “I'm sorry for your loss,” is certainly a valid statement, but it doesn't really invite the person who's grieving to share the reality of their emotional experience. Often it is met instead with a brief, “Thank you.”

In the past month, I've found myself in multiple situations in which I've wanted to offer a consoling thought to a person struggling with something difficult in his/her life. And even though I have first-hand experience of being on the other side of this type of conversation, I still find myself anxious and flailing as I try to offer words of meaning. As a writer, this has caused a tenuous relationship with language. After all, what good are words if they're not available when I need them most?

Last week I had the honor of speaking at a conference for survivors and caregivers of traumatic brain injury. After my speech I was approached by many people who were eager to tell me about their own journey with brain injury. At the risk of using another cliché, I was truly blown away by their stories. I met survivors of aneurisms, car wrecks, swimming accidents, and even a woman who suffered a TBI following a pharmaceutical accident involving a drug she was incorrectly prescribed. Each had suffered unfathomable pain and was trying with great effort to create a new path in life. I felt deep awe for these impressive people. No one on the outside could possibly imagine the things with which they were contending. Nervous about responding with any kind of statement that would minimize their great struggle, I found myself simply offering, “You've been through so much. What is life like today?”

And from that short question came an outpouring of truth. Very few folks that I talked to felt obliged to give the perfunctory answer of, “Oh, things are getting better.” Instead, their answers were often wordless – tears, followed by a deep sigh, and then a very genuine exchange of emotion. As I listened, I tried to shut off the part of my brain that insisted on formulating a response, and just allowed myself to be a quiet participant in the moment. A hug, a handhold, and eye contact – these nonverbal exchanges seemed more appropriate than words.

Language is a beautiful tool, something that has allowed us to forge relationships and articulate many big ideas in life, but it is not all encompassing. There are some moments, some events in the world that transcend language, and it's important that we resist the urge to constantly fit our experiences into the limited box that language provides. As I've learned during my husband's struggle with aphasia, words are important, but they are not our sole form of communication. It is our own fear of discomfort and sadness that encourages us to act resolutely in tough situations, but the simple act of acknowledging that there are no words can be a beautiful display of empathy in itself. After all, sharing in someone's pain does not mean fixing it, making sense of it, or covering it with platitudes. Struggle is an inevitable part of being human, so let us be willing to offer a sincere connection to let people know they are not alone in this experience.

Comments (8)

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Well put.  Thank you for the great idea.

Great article, I can relate, after sharing my story, people share theirs and the same thing, I never feel I have a response matching the gravity of their situation,knowing how hollow my response feels, I feel badly.

This is the first thing I've read that explains how I feel my husband has a brain injury and it is harder than death and not because of caring for him it's the feeling of being alone because no one seems to understand it is that look or hug that I need.

Abby, you are so thoughtful and eloquent. I'm glad you're writing and speaking about such an important and underappreciated condition. Dannie would be (and was) proud of you too!

This was truly an amazing story. One I felt very deeply in my heart, and as my family and I struggle with my husband's traumatic brain injury from a car accident 8 years ago. It is often we hear these vary words and responses, ones that dont really mean very much.

I'm not one to usually comment on these sorts of things, but having suffered a subarachnoid hemorrhage in 2013, I could completely relate to the Aphasia, it's like your brain just cannot make a connection, like a telephone line and you cannot find the word you are desperately scratching around for.

This is so helpful, Abby, especially the words, "You've been through so much. What is life like today?”  I must learn to listen better.

Great article. Our 8 year old granddaughter lives with us, she contends with SBS ~ I also have a web show that is sort of like watching live TV on both FB and Youtube, I would love to have you on as a guest sometime ~ you can look me up on my Facebook page if you are interested, under Jim Kaufer or check out her website at ~ thank you