Two of the most damaging words in the English language are also two of the most common: "Don't cry."
Tears come for many reasons. But inevitably they cause a problem, especially when the tears spring from grief.
The problem doesn't belong to the grieving, tearful person; tears help relieve the pressure of overwhelming emotions. More likely, the tears cause a problem for those of us who find ourselves watching someone cry.
Our problem is as common -- and as human -- as tears. It's as simple as a reddened face, and it's called embarrassment. Just when we should be feeling compassion and summoning up comfort for someone in pain, our own discomfort takes over and leaves us red-faced and mute.
What do we say to someone who is in tears?
Let's start with the easy part, what not to say. You guessed it: Don't say, "Don't cry."
Why? Because that's what we want, not what our friend needs. Grieving people need to cry, to express their shock and dismay in physical ways. Over and over, therapists find that stifling the grief -- holding back the tears -- is a recipe for trouble later on.
When we tell a friend not to cry, we are denying him or her an important way of dealing with grief. And we are usually doing it for selfish reasons. Stopping the tears will help take away our own discomfort and put the encounter back on the familiar ground of a conversation between people who are fully in control of their emotions.
When we say "Don't cry," we're usually telling the grieving person to meet our needs by stopping the behavior that embarrasses us and leaves us at a loss for words. It's no fun to be at a loss for words. That's true for almost anybody, not just for people who excel at small talk or quick retorts, or for all those clever people who never leave home without a fresh wisecrack or two.
Words connect us to other people. When they fail us, we feel lost and awkward and foolish.
And nothing scares words away like the presence of fresh, wrenching grief, grief that overwhelms us when we confront a loss that words cannot explain.
The fact is, there are no magic words to say at a moment like this. What we owe other people in their time of grief is, above all, respect for the need to grieve so that they can come to terms with a painful loss. More than words, we owe a grieving friend comfort.
At its root, comfort means "strong with." Those two words don't tell us what to say to a grieving person. But they give us a clue about how to act. Comfort is something we do, not a formula we can recite.
The willingness to be comforting often boils down to this: simply being present while a person expresses grief. When we can do that, we have usually found the best way to deal with our own awkwardness at a time when words are not enough.
Once we've resisted the temptation to say the wrong words, sooner or later the right words will come.