Being present is our practice. When we’re not present we tend to say or do things we regret. Maybe we make a case to justify what we’ve said or done. Or we get entangled in some other way. Staying present, we are more likely to be skillful. And if we stumble in our words or deeds, we’re more able to recognize it and address it quickly. As an example, one student shared that she had a conversation with someone and said something that just felt wrong. The next day she called the person, told them what she’d noticed. Her friend appreciated her call and they cleared the air between them.
But if we’re not aware of our words and actions, we can’t resolve problems they may cause, so they gnaw away at us, growing into a more entangled story. Then we mindlessly damage other relationships as we act out that internal drama. Oh my!
Our words and actions matter. That’s why Wise Speech and Wise Action are part of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path. And that’s why we want to know if there are words and actions that will be a help not a hindrance when someone is suffering. We want to be useful, not annoying.
If there were a one-size-fits-all perfect set of words or offering to bring, we would all know about it by now. Instead we are left to our own devices. So let’s look at what those standard devices are:
- We could repeat what we have heard other people say.
- We could try to imagine what it would be like to experience a great loss, a serious illness, accident or surgery.
- We could retreat, feeling uncomfortable and at a loss for words, and tell ourselves they want to be left alone.
- If we have never experienced anything like what they are going through, then we may feel hopelessly ill-equipped to meet the challenge.
- If we have experienced something similar, we may think we know exactly what they are going through, and launch into our own tales of woe.
Sound familiar? Maybe there’s a better way. A way that starts by sensing in to our inherent interconnection with all life. A way that cultivates the ability to receive the infinite lovingkindness of metta in phrases like: May I be well. May I be at ease. May I be peaceful. May I know the joy that comes from being fully present in this moment. And then, from that sense of fullness, sharing that lovingkindness without discrimination to all beings. Over the years, I have found metta to be the most powerful teaching in bringing about a real shift in relationships. (For the past 12 hours I have been sending metta to Ruth Bader Ginsberg. May she rest in peace. And metta to all who are in mourning, including all of us who have felt so protected by her deep sense of fairness and delighted by her warmth, humor and intelligence. And metta to those in powerful positions, that they may act with wisdom, clarity, and kindness.)
When it comes to saying or doing the right thing for someone, if we tap into that sense of having opened to and received metta, we are able to radiate it in all our interactions. We are less self-conscious, less awkward, less isolated, having to defend a false fortress of ‘self’.
Knowing what to do when someone is suffering comes more easily if we are very close to them. Although we may struggle at times within the relationship, and even struggle for words to tell hard truths, we are not likely to struggle with what to say at times of great loss, illness, or difficulty. We know how to be there for each other. Often it’s a wordless exchange. Just the physical proximity says everything we need.
But when we get beyond that intimate circle, we might be less sure what to say, and we may kick ourselves for saying something inappropriate or that comes across as insincere. One time I was in line to give my condolences to a grieving widow I didn’t know well who lived several counties away. Yet I said, and I quote, “Please let me know if there is anything I can do.” The look on her face was one of, um, almost disgust. Or maybe I was projecting my own disgust at myself, because even as the words came out of my mouth, I realized how odd they were. How exactly would she let me know if she needed something? I was a relative of a friend she may have seen at an occasional family party. She might not even remember my name, let alone have my phone number. I lived far away. And what, pray tell, was I offering to do for her?
That was twenty years ago. I haven’t forgotten that brief but telling moment. It lingers as a reminder to think before speaking, using the Buddha’s ways to discern whether what I say will be wise. To summarize from the Vaca Sutta, Wise Speech is timely, factual, affectionately shared, beneficial, and rooted in wise intention. At that funeral, my words met some but not all of the conditions. I recognized that after I said it, not because I went down the Buddha’s list after the fact, but because I felt it in my gut.
My weekly online Marin Insight Women’s Sangha is comprised of wise women, most of whom have experienced many of life’s challenges. We have been on the receiving end of words that lifted us up and words that added to our anguish or simply fell flat. So after meditating together, I asked them to share them. The first words that came up were ones of compassion, reminding me that we have all experienced being at a loss for words. (Much appreciated, HM!)
(NOTE: Because we were remembering what helped in past experiences, we fell out of COVID time. But most suggestions are adaptable for reaching out electronically. Those that aren’t, keep for future reference, because all is impermanent and this too shall pass.)
Wise Words & Actions Shared by Wise Women
If you are at funeral, wake, or sitting shiva for a person you knew, share stories about them, fond memories, funny quirks about them that would bring smiles of recognition. And share what that person meant to you. If you knew the deceased from one area of their life, what you share might be new information for their family member.
If you didn’t know the person, you will likely hear things about them at the funeral that inspires you to say to their loved ones that you wish you had known them.
Remember that just being there matters. It is heartening for the family to see how many people showed up for their loved one.
After hearing these ideas, I realized that when I spoke to the widow, I could have said the truest thing for me: that the deceased meant so much to someone I love, and I wish I had had the chance to know him better.
When visiting someone who is ill or recovering from surgery or a loss:
Ask “Is there anything I can do to help?” And then offer specifics: chores you can commit to. For example, running errands, taking them to appointments, making phone calls, researching online. Sometimes you step into a situation and can see that it’s “All hands on deck!” Other times the family has it well covered and just appreciates your sitting with your friend for a little while.
What to bring
- Delicious food!!! Cookies (your most popular recipe or favorite bakery’s offerings) and chicken soup were both mentioned.
Given the variety of people’s dietary requirements, find out beforehand what they like to eat.
Take into consideration the number of people to be fed. For example, if your friend lives alone, single portion freezer bags of something nourishing and tasty, with contents clearly marked and dated, would be better than a casserole, while the casserole would be welcome if there’s a gathered crowd.
- Flowers in a vase, not as a bouquet that needs to be put in one, making extra work.
- Joy! If it feels right, share a funny or heartwarming story.
- Unless they are freshly out of the hospital, consider having handy a game, a puzzle, a pack of cards just in case they are up for it. Have no expectations, just have them in hidden away to pull out if the time is right.
- Bring a book you know they would enjoy, perhaps something light but engaging. If they’re not up to reading, maybe it’s an inspiring or funny essay or story you can read to them. If you know they listen to audio-books, order one for them.
- If you can only visit by phone, notice if there’s something they might need or enjoy, and order it to be delivered, as a nice surprise.
- But most of all bring your full loving attention.
What to say:
- Speak to the person not to their condition. They are still the same person they have always been.
- Asking “What would you like to talk about?” allows them to determine the flow of the conversation. Don’t grill them about their experience, but don’t avoid if it’s what they want to share.
- If they are feeling down on themselves, you might remind them of past experiences that showed their strength and resilience. If you can stand behind your words, you might tell them “We’ll get through this together.”
- World affairs are not likely to be healing, so only engage if that’s where they want to take the conversation, and if appropriate chime in with a news story that’s more uplifting.
- Be content to sit in silence, companionably, without expectation.
- If your friend is a meditator, you might sit together.
- Pay attention to their cues. They might not be up to what you had in mind, so switch gears or depart, letting them get needed rest.
After time passes
In the case of grief, even long after the initial loss, remember that their loved one is still very much in their hearts. Listen to and offer memories of them if you knew them.
In the case of illness or surgery, remember that those were conditions that have passed. Try not to saddle your friend with the label of that past condition. Only engage about it if they bring it up.
Whatever you do, don’t be that person who:
- drags out their own tales of woe.
- has a solution for every problem mentioned.
- criticizes how things have been done.
- brags about their perfect life and successes.
- shows up unexpected and expects to be waited on.
- distracts caregivers from their tasks.
- overstays their welcome.
- ignores cues that this isn’t a good time to visit.
We all know people who behave that way. Let’s remember that they too need compassion. They are caught up in the fear-based suffering of craving, aversion and delusion. Let’s remember that their words and actions are not intended to cause pain. Even when they do.
And if we can be compassionate to them, then we can be compassionate with ourselves when we find we have said or done something that was thoughtless or came out wrong. And if there’s someone you’ve been thinking about that you’ve put off getting in touch with, do it now!
Has this dharma post brought up some thoughts from your own experience on the receiving end of words and actions that either stand out for how much they helped? Please add to the conversation in the reply box below.
May we all be there for each other in whatever way we can.