When Words Are Not Enough


by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM  May 13, 2018

A brilliant sunset. A newborn’s first emphatic cry of arrival. The seemingly sudden budding of an orchid we had given up on. Sitting in front of the ocean’s vastness. Hearing a dreaded diagnosis. Losing our beloved.questionsclouds copy

Wonder and awe can leave us speechless. Tragedy, grief, the enormity of life can also render us mute. As a writer, I can feed on almost anything, yet I’m quick to admit that there are times when words are inadequate, when words are not enough, when there simply are no words. We’ve probably witnessed the well-intentioned offerings made at wake services or in the face of profound tragedy or loss—the softly mumbled condolences, the awkward searching for a meaningful phrase. We want to believe our words make a difference, that they can somehow salve the fresh wounds of loss and profound heartache. I suspect that, more than the words we utter at those times is our statement of witness: that we are here, that we have chosen to show up, that we desire to offer the only gift that is ours to give at these moments: the gift of being present to another even as we own our inability to save them from the heartache that summoned us to gather.

What to do, how to be, in the aftermath of the stunned silence that comes happily in the wake of profound beauty yet also sadly in the wake of profound loss? Our faith assures us that, just as the Holy One holds us in tenderness always, so we are called to a faithful presence. This may play out in real time as sitting by the bedside of a loved one as their breath becomes more labored on their final journey. Or deep listening to a friend whose pain spills out in torrents and underscores our inadequacy to reduce their suffering and loss. Or entering the stillness and allowing ourselves to feel our smallness before a mountain ridge, a midnight sky heavy with stars, a moon hung so low and large on the horizon that we just might believe we can touch its roundness.   The challenge is not to run away from Mystery but to remain, to accompany, to open ourselves to new learnings.

When words are not enough, I bake. Others cook and drop off casseroles, or babysit, or make phone calls or arrangements, or sit with in silence, or hug, or companion in a multitude of ways. These are all expressions of the presence Henri Nouwen describes in Out of Solitude.

“Still, when we honestly ask ourselves which persons in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving much advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a gentle and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not-knowing, not-curing, not-healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is the friend who cares.”

That is our call when words are not enough. We pray, we sit, we listen, we accompany. We show up in our powerlessness. We remain even as we feel our inadequacy and own our inability to save.

When words are not enough, we are present. It is sometimes all we can do, and it is everything.


Sit in stillness in the presence of the Holy One who remains with you always.
Invite into the stillness someone for whom you desire to be more fully present.
Surround this person with a field of compassion and affirmation.
Entrust him or her to the tenderness of the Holy One.

I’m writing this blog post while sitting in a lanai on Sanibel Island for a few restorative days. You have been present to me in my sitting and I send you blessings from this place of beauty and peace. 

Please hold in your prayer these upcoming events I’ll be leading: 

May 17:           Evening of Reflection for Women and Men Religious, Diocese of Scranton, PA
May 19:           Spiritual Spa Day, Our Lady of Grace Center, Manhasset, NY
May 23:           Social Justice Ministry, Christ the King Church, Springfield Gardens, NY

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4 thoughts on “When Words Are Not Enough”

  1. Dear Chris,
    This is such a meaningful article, and hits home with we Red Cross Disaster Spiritual Care responders. More often than not, there are no words…just presence.
    Thank you for sharing this!
    I am happy to hear you are resting in beautiful Sanibel…a place near and dear to me. Enjoy!
    You remain in my thoughts and prayers, feeling so grateful to know you. Peace, Cathy

    1. You are so right, Cathy, the work of the Red Cross Disaster Spiritual Care responders is all about presence. In fact, when I first hear you speak at a presentation for volunteers, that’s how you described your work, as a “ministry of presence.” That’s what drew me to this wonderful work and that’s what I continue to see in all the ways the Red Cross ministers to so many, often at the worst times in their lives when presence is especially needed. Thank you for the inspiration you offer to all of us.

  2. Thank you for describing so well, in words, why they are not always enough. To be able to recognise that and accept it is quite hard as I’ve always thought that words should be able to express everything. After reading your post and recalling some things in my life, I realise that is not true and that what really matters is, as you say, presence. Your last paragraph says it all for me. ‘When words are not enough, we are present. It is sometimes all we can do, and it is everything’.

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