Musings + Essays

On Saying the Thing.

By: Jen Shoop

I had a strong and unanticipated response to one of the scenes in our recent viewing of the excellent 90s Western “Tombstone”: Wyatt Earp is leaving Doc Holliday’s death bed, and he says: “Thanks for always being there, Doc.” Tears sprang out of my eyes and poured down my cheeks. Not so much because of Doc’s imminent death, but because Wyatt had said the thing. That is, he had galvanized the strength to stare death down and set aside the discomfort of expressing a tenderness in cowboy times in order to say how he really felt, and it was not only the right thing to say, but the right time to say it.

I lingered over my knee-jerk emotional response for some time as I washed my face before bed that night. As I drew the washcloth down my cheek, a twin pair of recent moments emerged, apparition-like. The first: when I blithely asked after a friend’s loved one over a Zoom happy hour and he replied that she had passed away from COVID just a few days prior. I fumbled around for the right words and ultimately said the wrong thing: “I’m so sorry…what a bad year.” I had felt overwhelmed by the moment, unsure of whether I was about to cry (!), and had meekly chosen to distract from my friend’s loss with a feeble reference to the more generalized horrors of 2020. A flimsy feint if I ever saw one. I wrote him a proper letter of condolence the next morning, fretting over whether I had seemed unsympathetic, but more capable of well-articulated sympathy with my pen in hand and a long run searching for the right words under my belt. The second: when another friend, in a moment of duress, shared some horrific memories from her childhood, and I sat quietly on the other end of the line, tears rolling down my cheeks. All I could manage was: “I am so sorry.” And then a regular cadence of phone calls to check in on her in the weeks following.

I will not permit myself to browbeat over my earnest and vulnerable reactions to the misfortunes of these friends. I am human and I was caught off guard by the emotional intensity of their admissions. I know, too, that sometimes — perhaps more often than we think — it is enough to just sit in grief with someone, to just be there. But as I stared absently into the sink of my bathroom that night, I thought how much I would rather have been Wyatt in those moments. To have said the thing. It seems to me that a woman of substance should have the presence of mind and emotional fortitude and experiential know-how to say the thing.

I write for a living, take genuine pleasure in a well-turned phrase, and spend days agonizing over le mot juste. I am particularly attentive to and critical of dialogue in fiction. And yet why is it that when these moments present themselves, it is as if language fails me, and I find myself either mute or awash in vaguenesses and platitudes? It is l’esprit de l’escalier, but applied to exchanges of all varieties.

I asked Mr. Magpie about this as we climbed into bed. “My mom is like Wyatt Earp, too. Why is it that she knows just what to say and how to say it in the moment?” I asked, drawing the covers up under my chin as I effortlessly conjured a half dozen individual moments in which I had observed her responding swiftly and with genuine empathy to admissions of loss on the part of friends and loved ones. Her composure! Her earnestness! The ease with which meaningful and kind and substantive words tumble out of her mouth. The instinctual way she tilts her head and makes a tutting noise to let you know — “well, this is awful” as she says the thing.

“Well, she has a good thirty years on you,” he replied. And maybe that’s true — maybe she has (sadly) had countless opportunities to practice the right words. But I should be at least partly on my way there at this point, right? I’ve grieved the war stories and losses of too many loved ones as it is.

But, yes — maybe I’ll get there with age.

Maybe I won’t, though. Maybe it is my lot to wear my heart on my sleeve and to disappear into a puddle of tears and to sit quietly on the other end of the line, present but bereft of speech. But then I can, maybe, do the thing afterward — write the letter, make the donation in someone’s name, call to check in with regularity, commemorate the moment of grief in various forms of shorthand and emoji for years to come.

Maybe it is enough.

Does anyone else struggle with saying the thing? How do you get around it? How do you reconcile?


+An earlier musing on the right words.

+Musings on grief.

+Small business finds to give as gifts or to keep for yourself.

+This sweater!!! In my cart…

+Writing, fishing, and the Roaring Fork.

+Beautiful everyday stationery at reasonable prices.

+Did you write new year’s resolutions?

+The $30 R. Vivimos dress so many of us loved last summer with long sleeves!

+Cute baby blanket with the dog design!

+This scalloped side table is beyond darling.

+We have been loving this cookbook so far this year.

+Cannot recommend these little tubes of “plus plus” pieces enough. A reader recommended them not long ago (thank you!) and they have preoccupied hours of mini’s time since she received one of the tubes in her stocking. I sent one to my lego-loving nephew as a little surprise!

+This little wicker bag just makes me happy.

+Sweetest little decorative hangers for a tiny closet.

+ICYMI: reviewed some hyped beauty and home products in this post.

+European pharmacy favorites.

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11 thoughts on “On Saying the Thing.

  1. This is a struggle for me too. Stephanie’s point about introversion/extroversion and time to process makes sense… I tend to be a “think-do-think” person and spend a significantly greater amount of time thinking on both ends.

    My good friend’s husband passed away last year and I check in with her via text quite regularly, and often all I could say in response was something along the lines of “I’m here for you” or “I wish I could give you a big hug right now.” It never seems enough, given the magnitude of her grief — and it pains me that I can’t do more. But my hope is that she feels my presence, even when we’re thousands of miles away.

    I had a similar experience to Joanna’s too — I once called a friend so I could cry and not do it alone. She didn’t have to say anything. I just appreciated someone else on the other end of the line, and the thought that someone else was bearing this burden with me was such a comfort. It reminded me, as I relate to my grieving friend, that
    providing/being that safe space for someone else can go a long way… and that sometimes it’s not so much what is said, but what is felt between two people.

    1. Hi Mia – I am so sure your friend does. This is a totally different wavelength, but I remember when I was in the throes of caring for micro, one of my girlfriends used to text me every few days just to say: “How are things today? Hanging in there?” It was like a lifeline…just a big empty space for me to spit out whatever was on my mind (mainly, exhaustion and breastfeeding woes). So incredibly generous for people to create space for us to just be.


  2. I, too, have often struggled with the right words in the moment. As I’ve matured, it’s become a bit easier, and certainly in last 10 months, being a leader/mentor of women I’ve faced far too many instances of needing “the right words” But rest assured that your heart is apparent to your friends and family, and that the written word and conversations after the fact can often mean as much (if not more?) to them. I’ve found that after the initial outpouring of love and support there is a gap that needs filling. And maybe you’re just the one to do it. Wishing you a grace-filled day… xo H

  3. I think this has a lot to do with how one processes info, and also introversion vs extroversion. Personally, I’m an introvert and I often feel like slow processor. It’s hard to come up with a quick yet thoughtful response on the fly, even in the best of circumstances! It’s like I need a bit of time to process in my head first. So I totally resonated with your thoughts above! Perhaps people that are able to say the thing in the moment (like your mom) are more extroverted, or at least faster processors? Not necessarily smarter or better, but minds just function in different ways. I do think it can be a learned skill, however, with practice! But that’s not to discount the thoughtful note or other “delayed” words of comfort/solidarity – a well- written note is its own superpower.

    1. Hi Stephanie – This is such an interesting point — I really do think I’m a slow processor. It can take me weeks to unpack how I feel or think about a particular thing, and I only arrive at a conclusion through multiple oblique attempts at comprehension, often writing things out, running through conversations in my head, talking it out with Mr. Magpie.

      Thanks for this insight — and, agreed. A well-written note is its own superpower 🙂


  4. I recently shared some grief with my sister, weeping and weeping and weeping, and she didn’t say much of anything, just sat there on the other end of the line while I cried and cried and cried. And I thought afterward how powerful it was to have someone just sit and listen and hold space for me and my experience. Not judge me, not rush me out of it, not offer advice or anything. Just be there with me.

    As I read your post, I think that you are doing the thing. You might not be saying the thing, but you’re present, really present to other people’s experiences and that is such a gift.

    1. Hi Joanna – I am so sorry for your recent loss, and so happy that you had a sister to sit with you in it. The image of the two of you on the other ends of the phone is so precious, and so deeply familiar to me. I could not live without my sisters to pick up my calls at all hours and just listen…thanks for the reminder of that blessing today.

      And thank you for your generosity here!

      Wishing you the best, my friend.


  5. Saying “the thing” is so hard!!!

    I remember reading about parents who had lost children and they were saying one of the (many!) hard things to deal with having to comfort other people who would be so upset by the news. But just as important, and hard, was people who after a week, month, year, no longer mentioned the child or checked in. I think that people can be innately good at one or even both.

    But both can be learned – experience helps, having to steel yourself for your children helps and realizing, as you said, that sitting with people in their grief can be just as important as saying “the thing!”

    1. Ooof – this is so truthful on the point of remembering the deceased to the grieving (!). Thank you for that reminder. Thanks also for the optimistic take here — perhaps more practice, experience will help me corral the words and marshal the courage to say them. Thanks for writing in here, Molly. xx

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