Words Will Fail You

Humans communicate so much through the words they use. We use Twitter, Facebook updates, text messages, blog posts, speech.

There is so much effort poured into the words we say. Sadly, at one point or another, words will fail you. Situations will arise where words are meaningless.

Worn out man, words have failed him

Image by Lucas Incas

I found this to be true during and after my wife and I had to make the difficult choice to put our dog down. People tried to comfort us with their words.

We heard:

You’ll feel better over time

You made the right choice

You did what needed to be done

You loved him and he loved you

You know, all of those words were true. Things have gotten better. We believe we made the right choice. We believe we did what had to be done. And we sure did love him.

But honestly, those words failed us at the time. They weren’t as comforting as we wanted them to be. Or as those saying them wanted the words to be. We still felt our pain.

When words begin to fail, there are actions you can take that will help communicate what you’re feeling and to show the other person you care.

Here are the actions that were taken towards us that helped us in our time of grief. I believe they can help others through their grief.

1. Be willing to be present: For me, there’s nothing like having a living, breathing person next to me. There’s comfort in their presence. There’s just something about being physically present with someone.

One person who stands out is my friend Jimmi. He showed up unannounced and stayed with me for hours. His presence meant the world to me that night.

My family also showed up. My mom helped take care of Pam and I as we grieved. My sister stayed with us through part of the night. Their presence mattered.

And then there was my wife’s friend Kalli. She helped take care of Pam while she was sick and I was mourning. Her help helped get us through.

Words meant nothing to me that night but the presence of others carried us through.

2. Be willing to listen: All too often we want to speak and share our answers with others. We want to give them the five steps to success. The 3 keys to happiness. The seven principles to get you through any difficult situation.

 We’ve got to be willing to stop offering our advice. Instead, shut up, sit down, and let the other person speak. The words you’re wanting to speak to the person going through a bad situation isn’t what they need to hear. Those words will fail them. Instead, be willing to listen. Let them pour out what’s inside and clear out their heavy hearts.

3. Be willing to touch: We’ve got to be careful with this one but we need to be willing to touch others. Not in a sexual way but in a way that lets them know you care.

Be willing to give a loving hug. A meaningful touch of understanding on their shoulder. Or a hand hold.

Most people have a longing to be touched. Our touches can communicate much more than our words at times. Be willing to reach out and touch someone.

Nonverbal communication can be a tough skill to master. And yet it’s one that we all need to focus on and become better at. Learn to be present. Learn to listen. Learn to touch.

Remember, words will fail. That doesn’t mean our communication has to.

Question: What do you do when words fail? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Great post, Joe! As someone who cared directly for grieving families, these points are important and effective. The power of touch is amazing. Add the power of prayer and you’ve got a one-two punch.

    One thing I would add is the power of permission. During the moment that I led families to see their loved one, I would often hear the excuse (for not crying): “I have to be strong for my kids/my spouse/the deceased.” “I understand,” I would respond. “But this isn’t a time to be strong. I’m going to give you some time alone with your loved one. You may have things to say to him/her and it’s OK to just stop being strong right now and cry for your mom.” The other excuse was FOR crying. People have to know that it’s OK to grieve! Sometimes, that takes the permission of a loved one, trusted friend, or even a professional.

    • Justin, your addition is well noted. We’ve got to give/have permission to grieve. There were times I felt like I shouldn’t even though I felt like I needed to grieve. Giving permission allows those that are struggling to get some of those pent up emotions out.

      • Giving permission validates those feelings. “It’ll get better” or similar niceties do not acknowledge the here-and-now hurt and that dull ache that comes and goes for quite a while. Thinking of you, buddy. There are few bonds stronger than the one between a boy and his dog.

  • This is truly a heartfelt post, Joe. Between my tears, I managed to find a slight grammatical error that you may want to fix. It’ in the line: My sister say with us through part of the night. Didn’t you mean to say that your sister stayed with you?

    Feeling and coping with the loss of a loved one is never easy, whether it’s the loss of a parent, friend, sibling, or other relative. Your dog was both family AND friend, which makes things doubly difficult to handle.

    I know my words cannot ease your continued pain, but please know that I am reaching out to you, one arm extended, with sincerity in my touch, to wrap around your shoulders in a comforting way.


    When I was a little girl and had the flu, I knew there was nothing my mom could do for me as I puked into the toilet. Having her stand behind me, silently, just standing there, just being there, watching me, waiting with me, not doing anything but being there, helped comfort me so much.

    So I can truly relate to what you’re saying here.

    • Thanks for the catch Lorraine. It’s been fixed!

      So you’ve felt the comfort presence can bring. It’s an amazing thing when we don’t need words to comfort but just by being there we’re able to do so much.

  • Good stuff Joe. I remember making a hospital visit a few years ago to a terminal patient. Despite my faith I felt completely lost. What did I have to offer this dying man and his family? As you said, we need to quit giving advice. I really can’t fix people nor should I try. So for them I just offered them my concern and my presence. I did pray for them before I left, but for the most part I just set their quietly.

    • Jon, I’m sure your presence meant more to that man and his family than you will ever realize. To know someone is willing to give of their time and sit with them during their grief is an amazing gift.

  • I think being present is huge. Often when we are going through a difficult time we just need to closeness of a friend. No words but to know they are near. Great post, Joe!

    • So true Dan. The closeness of a friend can be life giving water to one in need.

  • Wow. That’s powerful stuff. I just had a friend that was incarcerated for substance abuse. Just found out today. I have the desire to help him get real rehab. Maybe an important thing he needs most right now is to just feel a loving presence without a lot of spoken answers. Most people know when they have overstepped the line. I don’t need to remind of that. I need to give grace, redemption, love. Above all— hope. Though giving these gifts may seem weak or cop-outs they can actually be quite powerful and effective. Indeed. Powerful. Thanks, Joe. (I’m thinking when people actually don’t know they have overstepped the line then it’s a good time to clarify and point it out.)

    • Arlen, I’m sorry to hear about your friend. I think giving your friend your presence and allowing yourself to be there for him will be a great help.

      Too often we’re willing to jump in with condemnation and answers rather than an open hand that says “I’m here for you.” I hope and pray your friend gets the help he needs and has the support and love of his friends and family.

  • rcsinclair952

    Just lost my dad Thursday.
    Actually, if someone doesn’t know what to say, I wish they would shut up. My emotions are near the surface anyway. I don’t need to know from you that because he was 89, he lived a long life.(I know 89 is old.) I don’t need to know that he was lucky that I was there for him. I don’t want to answer the question, “Now that you aren’t watching dad, what are you doing for a job?” (All questions I have gotten this week.) I just want you there. I need you to give me time to go through the emotions.

    As Dan and Joe said so well, it is the closeness of a friend.

    • Bob, I’m so sorry to hear about your dad. While I haven’t experienced that loss yet, I can empathize with the way you’re feeling. I hope you’ve got a great friend that’s standing by your side at this time.

      And if there’s anything I can do, please let me know and I’ll be there for you.

      • rcsinclair952


  • I find that people often feel like they have to say something in those difficult life situations. We experienced that when our 1yr old was diagnosed with cancer. People would say, “Don’t worry, it will be alright”. That statement actually made things worse. How did they know? The best comfort at times was a simple hug and the presence of a loved ones.

    • Caleb, you may be right in that people feel they have to say something. It’s odd though, isn’t it? We all know what we want during a situation like that or ones that I’ve gone through. But it seems we will default to the comforting words. Any ideas on how we can break that bad habit?

  • My best friend’s husband was recently diagnosed with cancer, and I felt helpless at times – not knowing what to say, afraid of saying the wrong thing, and of offering words that would be construed as easy and flip. All I did was spend time with her, and after reading your post, I’m thinking maybe that was the best thing I could have done. I have a dog that I love like a child, so I also appreciate your transparency of emotions.

    • LaRae, I’m sorry to hear about your friend’s husband. She must be going through a whirlwind of emotions right now. I’ll keep her and her husband in my prayers.

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  • RcMaFitness

    The older we get the clumsier we get with words & actions because we’ve lived long enough to make mistakes & to keep on making them. Thus we get quite apprehensive when it boils down to — just — being present. We make the mistake of saying too much, saying the wrong thing, or stating the obvious. People aren’t going to cherish the memory of what we say as much as what we do in their nick-of-time. So for me, when my words fail, is just a matter of showing up. Thanks Joe!

    • That’s a great way to put why we begin to falter in how we respond. Why do you think so many can’t correct on this problem?

      • RcMaFitness

        It has a lot to do with our mindset (our attitude, predisposition, demeanor) toward what we think we can grasp or imagine because we’ve had similar experiences. — i.e. the lost of someone or something. However, at times is plain laziness (relying too much on a “cheap” text that says I Love You in 140 character or less, instead of driving there, biking there, or walking/running there). Carole King would say, You’ve got a friend (& then the friend hears a knock on the door, wow!). 🙂