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When You Don’t Know What to Say

May 13, 2017

I don’t understand some things that happen in life. When one of the most vivacious, fun-loving, beautiful, determined-to-tell-the-world-about-Jesus women I knew found out her cancer was back, my heart broke.

Short of a miraculous healing from God, Brenda wouldn’t make it through the end of that year.
One afternoon, I sat with Brenda talking and processing her reality. At one point she got very quiet. It was as if she could see things I couldn’t. After a few minutes of silent reflection, she leaned over and whispered, “I know in my heart I’m not going to be here much longer. And I need to know my girls will be okay. They need godly women to walk with them, speak into them and guide them into the future God has for them.”

With tears streaming down my face, I committed to being one of those women.

A few weeks later, Brenda’s feeling was confirmed as she let go of her family’s hand and walked into glory.

At the time, Paige and Philecia were only 19 and 14 years old, the same ages my eldest and youngest daughters were. I had no idea how to do this right. I didn’t have a game plan or a degree in grief counseling. My schedule was crazy. My own kids made me question my sanity some days. And I was so hyperaware of all the many ways I’m flawed. But one thing I knew I could do — be a female voice that whispered often into their lives, “I love you.”

Uttering three simple words into the deep grief of two brokenhearted little girls didn’t seem like much, but God used it in profound ways. 

I couldn’t take away their pain. But I could bring joy in the midst of it.

I whispered “I love you” at simple, everyday dinners at my house. I wrote “I love you” on the tops of their birthday gifts and Christmas morning surprises. I texted it when I invited them for afternoon coffee and movie dates. Nothing about it was organized or done perfectly. But just the effort seemed to be what mattered most.

I wonder if you have a friend going through a really tough time, especially this Mother’s Day. Maybe you know someone who has lost her mom, doesn’t have a relationship with her mom, or is struggling to get pregnant. Have you wrestled like I did with not knowing what to say? Been afraid of doing or saying the wrong thing? I understand.

But I’ve learned it’s better to risk doing it wrong than to do nothing at all. A simple “I love you” said or written in conjunction with meeting a practical need is a great place to start.

On their first Mother’s Day without Brenda, I knew the girls would need an “I love you” to help ease the ache of the day. So, I invited their family to join mine for dinner that night.

Halfway through the meal, I wished I had thought in advance of some wonderfully profound words to share to honor Brenda. But right as I was lamenting not being better prepared for this moment, Paige pulled out a framed letter they’d written to me. In honor of Brenda, they’d decided to give me a gift they knew she would have loved … a gold necklace.

I was crying so hard I could barely read their letter. But since then, I’ve read it many times as a reminder of how powerful love is. In the letter they included one of Brenda’s favorite verses, “I can do all this through him who gives me strength,” (Philippians 4:13). Interestingly enough, the very next verse reads, “Yet it was good of you to share in my troubles” (v.14).

Yes, it is good to share in each other’s troubles. And so, with a willing but very imperfect heart, I will keep whispering “I love you” into the lives of Brenda’s beautiful girls.

I still don’t understand why this happened. And I don’t always know the right things to say in response to deep grief. But I do know love is a beautiful thing to bring into the gap of life’s unknowns.

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  1. Victoria Whyte

    As a grieving parent I 100% agree with your statement that “I’ve learned it’s better to risk doing it wrong than to do nothing at all.” Thank you for writing this.

  2. Yvette Harrison

    I’m so glad I read your message. I’ve been going through a period of depression, one of many I’ve experienced. Marcia, who had been my best friend from second grade would have been fifty-one years old two weeks ago. But because of a series of horrible things that occurred in her life, she died of AIDS at the age of 26. I started sending her mother cards around the time of Marcia’s birthday and for Mothers Day. But in the midst of this depressive state, I forgot to send cards. Reading your message just reminded me of my failure to send the cards to Marcia’s mom. Fortunately, I will be spending Mother’s Day with my mom who still lives four doors down from Marcia’s mom. So on Sunday, I will hand-deliver the card to Marcia’s mom. Thank you for reminding me of the importance of saying “I love you” whenever you can. Brenda’s girls are so blessed to have you in their lives.

  3. dena

    Thanks Lysa. This is exactly what I needed to hear today.

  4. Donna

    How perfect, reaching out or knowing what to say has always been the hardest for me, not wanting to offend some one who is in the dying process,. thank you for the perfect solution. How those two girls,. must have felt your love surrounding them. knowing you were there for them, after their loss.


    It is thought provoking article , it embraces everyone to power of love to reality of life in the midst of unexpected difficulties ,

  6. Billie

    Thank you Lysa.
    For being there in a real way for your friend and used by God to speak into my life.
    Happy Mothers Day
    Billie Jo

  7. Anne

    Thank you Lisa…I love you 😘

  8. Donna

    Thank you for your Mothers Day article “When You Don’t Know What to Say” I struggle with this day every year! I have 5 amazing adult sons who I love painfully and deeply. Love is painful and beautiful at the same time. I have a beautiful daughter-in-law who has had 3 miscarriages. I grieve for her and my son Aaron. Your article reminded me that it is okay to feel pain on this day and mix it with lots of love! Thank you for being such a blessing through your books and ministry.

  9. sunny

    Thank you for this perfectly timed post. I am close to two teenage girls who lost their mom when they were 5 and 6. I never know just what to say to them to communicate how loved they are, but now I will follow your example and include “I love you” in every day messages to them.

  10. Jeanette

    Thank you for this post. My sister lost her first and only baby girl this year, and I did not know what to say to her on Mother’s Day. This post confirms the message God led me to share with her. Saying something really is better than saying nothing. Thank you again

    • Lysa TerKeurst

      We are so sorry for the loss your family has experienced this year. We are so thankful that the words of this post resonated with you, and helped you encourage your sister! Many blessings!
      Mary Scott Mercer
      LT Ministry Team

  11. Obdul

    “Something new or better is around the corner.”
    In Romans 8:28 we are told that all things work well for the children of God, and we know that God is in control of everything. Nothing surprises him or escapes him, everything has a purpose. It is to rest in it, be still and acknowledge that I am God. It is to know that the difficulty is real but only temporary, also that we will be strengthened in Christ at the perfect time of our Father. We will be transformed to the character of Christ, during the process we will want to delight God..It is to run to take shelter under the wings of the Father and wait to pass the storm contemplating Him, He calms the winds and seas. It is to recognize that we depend on Him in everything and enjoy ourselves for it. Remembering any time how powerful is our God!

  12. Karen

    Something new and better is around the corner. I am going through a rough time. I am working through a big disappointment, but I am reading my Bible daily and trusting God with this. It is all in his hands and I will do what He wants me to do with my life. I realize it may not be my plan, but His will be done. I am trusting my Saviour, and I am sure he will see me through this dark time in my life.

    Psalm 46:1. God is our refuge and strength, A very present help in trouble. I say this each day and believe it.

    Thank you for your blog, and God bless you .

  13. Elaine

    When we trust God, we don’t go backward. We only move forward with Him. So, what seems like a setback can really be the perfect position from which you can move forward in a new way.
    At this time this statement is in tune with what I am enduring in a situation where only God can make a way and where God clearly wants me to be…and that is to be entitely reliant on Him and learn more about true humility. Thank you.

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