Ministry of Presence

lemons card

Emily McDowell makes this great card. I sent this to my friend who had breast cancer because every time we were together and we saw someone she knew, they would come over and invariably share a horror story about someone they knew who died of breast cancer.

After we politely sat through the tale of horror, I would remind her to “Shake it off! That’s not your story.”

Sometimes my friend would get angry and say, “How can people be so thoughtless and cruel? Why when I’m fighting for my life why would they want to discourage me by telling me about someone who lost their battle? ”

At first, I tried to defend them and say, “I think they’re trying to find common ground with you right now and they just don’t know how to do it.”

But then it happened so often I said, “People are just stupid.”

Let’s be honest, we have all found ourselves in situations where we feel like we should be able to give advice or we desperately want to find some common ground and be helpful. And often we discover that all we can find is to tell someone about someone you knew or heard about that went through the same thing or something similar.

We’re grasping at straws.

The sad thing is that the person you’re talking to knows you’re grasping at straws and they feel bad for you so even though they are suffering or sad or sick, they re spending precious energy and emotion ministering to you by letting you ramble on in your embarrassment.

I think I can help the situation. Let me advise you:

  • Unless you’ve had the same experience, just admit you can’t relate and don’t know what they’re going through so don’t act like you do.
  • It’s okay to say, “I don’t know what to say.”

Times like these often just require you to practice The Ministry of Presence. A friend of mine shared this with me.

All you do is just be there.

Just be there.

You don’t have to have all the answers. You don’t have to give advice. You don’t have to save them. You don’t have to do anything. You probably can’t make it better. So, it’s probably best that you don’t even try.

The best you can do is just be there. Your presence alone is a gift and a comfort.

Then if they ask you to do something, you can decide if you can do that. If they ask you what you think, tell them.

In my experience, most people who have serious, serious illnesses have already faced their own mortality and wrestled with their fears privately. When they are ready to be with people they really like distraction. They like to think about something other than themselves. They want to see you happy and love for you to tell them about your life, your family, your children and pets. So, it’s okay to talk about your joy because I have found that people who are battling for their lives have discovered they don’t have time or energy to mess with petty issues like jealousy.

People who are suffering are sometimes the most generous, kind, patient and loving people on the planet. And they spend a lot of time loving and being patient with those of us who mean well but just stumble and fumble around them trying to be helpful. They use a lot of energy telling us, “It’s okay” and “Thank you.”

I discovered that when I stoppedĀ being freaked out about not knowing what to say or what to do and I just decided to show up and listen, not only was I more helpful, I was ministered to as well.








When To Say “I’m Sorry” & “I’m Proud of You”


I was wondering if anyone out there has the same reactions to the phrases, “I’m sorry” and “I’m proud of you”?

Maybe it’s just me but here’s what happens.

When something bad happens to someone I know like an illness or a death in the family, I will say, “Oh, I’m so sorry” and the response I often get is “It’s not your fault, why did you say that?” That happens a lot. Then I always feel embarrassed like I’ve made a mistake. Then when I try to explain myself I just become annoying.

And then when I do something well, like after a speaking engagement or being recognized for something, people (even those I don’t know very well) will often say “I’m so proud of you.” And that comment makes me feel like a little kid and they’re my parent. Then I feel like I’m being arrogant like I don’t want to share the praise with people.

So, after a recent experience I decided to stop and think about it. I looked up some definitions and did a little internet research about the phenomenon. I even pressed past my guilt and read an article with the title, “Why You Should Never Tell Your Child You’re Proud of Them.”

That little bit of thinking and reading (that I have time for because I’m spending less time cleaning and decluttering because who would have had time before to research something as trivial as this??) I’ve come to peace with these two phrases. I’ll share it now, if you have time.

Number one: “I’m sorry” is a phrase that I’ve been using correctly, it’s just that the meaning has been overshadowed by a second definition. To be sorry means, “Feeling or expressing sympathy, pity, or regret.” So, while I am expressing sympathy to my friend who is having a hard time, they think I’m apologizing like I had something to do with their troubles.

Number two: “I’m proud of you” is a phrase someone says to someone who has accomplished something or been successful. The trouble with this phrase is that it puts the person who is saying it in a superior position than the person receiving the compliment. It also implies a close relationship and that the speaker has had a contribution in the other’s success. So, for a stranger to come up to me and say, “I’m so proud of you” is awkward because I don’t know the and they had nothing to do with my success. Some people advise parents not to say this phrase to your children because it somehow takes away from the child’s success and makes it the parent’s achievement. I can see that, however, I think it’s okay for a parent to acknowledge a shared success. And I think it would be healthy for a child to see that they could not have been successful without the help of others. Not to mention the parent is in the superior position to the child.

One thing that is implicit within both phrases is relationship. When my friend’s family member dies, I could say “I’d like to offer my condolence” but that seems a bit cold to me. To say, “I’m sorry” lets my friend know that I’m affected by their sadness. It says, “You’re not in this alone.” Maybe the next time I get the typical response I’ll say, “I’m not apologizing, I’m expressing my sympathy.” Not that they need a lesson right then, but at least I won’t be stumbling and fumbling and saying “I’m sorry” for saying “I’m sorry.”

When my child wins the Spelling Bee, I think I can say, “I’m proud of you” because I helped them study, I supported them through all the doubt and fear of failure. However, it might be better to say, “You should be so proud of yourself right now” or just a plain old, “Great job!” when my child is older and they accomplished something with their own talent or hard work and I was not a teacher or mentor. I think I will think twice now before telling a peer that I am proud of them unless, of course, we had the relationship where they confided in me about their doubts and struggles and looked to me as a mentor.

I didn’t write this to make you, dear reader, paranoid about what you say. I just find words interesting and I was continually confused about the responses I had to these two phrases.

Maybe it will help someone, maybe it’s just me.

Have a great Monday!