Sometimes, we just don't know what to say.
It happens to all of us, even career comforters: rabbis, ministers and priests. When we hear something awful has happened to someone we love, or even someone we barely know, our instinct is to freeze or withdraw. We write a note or send an email but then, a few weeks later, we cross the street to avoid talking to the woman whose husband has just died or repeatedly forget to call a friend who's suffered a terrible loss.
Here's the irony: It's not because we don't care. It's because we do. We're terrified we'll say the wrong thing, or freeze, or make things worse. We make it, without meaning to, about us, and not about the person who needs us.
When I encounter this fear and resistance in myself, I always come back to two simple but exquisite teachings from the Talmud. The first: "Rabbi Abba son of Rabbi Hanina taught: The one who visits a sick person, takes away 1/60 of that person's pain." (Babylonia Talmud, Nedarim 39b) and the second: "Rabbi Chiyya was suffering, and Rabbi Yochanan gave him his hand. Rabbi Chiyya was lifted." (Babylonian Talmud, B'rachot 5b)
What's so striking about these teachings is this: There's nothing in them that requires that we know what to say. Yochanan doesn't say a word to Chiya, he simply holds his hand, and in that touch, in the simple act of showing up, there is comfort. In our willingness to simply enter a hospital room, or a house of mourning, we bring the gift of our presence.
Sometimes, words can't be the balm a suffering person needs. Sometimes, words can't hold the enormity of loss or trauma. Sometimes, what we most need is to know we haven't been abandoned, that we're not alone. Sometimes, all we can say in the wake of tragedy or illiness is "I'm so sorry." And offer our hand.
For the first year I was in San Diego, I visited a congregant in the last stages of ALS. We'd never met when he was well and by the time I started visiting him regularly, he'd lost his ability to speak or move. But I knew a lot about him. I knew he'd been a staggeringly successful event planner, that he'd lived all over the world, spent years planning parties and events for kings and queens and presidents, had famous friends, and was a person of great verve, energy and kindness. He was also, I knew, a man of deep faith. So on that first visit, I was terrified. What could I offer to a man 40 years my senior, a sophisticate, a jet-setter?
That first morning, I walked into his sickroom, sat down by the bed, and smiled. He raised his eyebrows and the corners of his mouth moved up ever so slightly. I took his hand and started to sing. A simple psalm, over and over again, first with the Hebrew words, and then just the tune. And as I continued, a slow smile spread across his face, tears filled his eyes and tracked down his cheeks. Worried I'd upset him, I stopped singing, and he raised his eyebrows, as if to say: "No, go on."
This became our ritual. Friday mornings, I would come in, chant the prayer for healing, light and bless the Shabbat candles, and take his hand and begin to sing. And every week, his eyes would light up, and he would smile a small, weak smile. And then he would begin to cry. And every week, I learned that often it's our showing up that matters most, that sometimes, our mere presence is the best possible panacea for a broken heart, a wounded soul, a hurting body, and that the 1/60th of suffering we take away by showing up has the ability to ease pain better than any drug ever will.