There are few words more problematic than “imagination.”

We beg our children to use theirs when they’re bored, but we’re quick to plead a lack thereof when confronted with grown-up realities. Indeed, the phrase is particularly menacing when articulated to adults in the midst of a crisis. Yet it still manages to slip off the tongue when the suffering most need sympathetic and encouraging words.

Truth is that we can and do imagine challenging scenarios a lot. Maybe too often. What if my mom gets cancer? What if I have to be away from my children for an extended period of time? What if my husband dies? But when these realities are staring back at you from a friend’s frightened eyes, they can be too close for comfort. So out comes, “I can’t imagine,” and off you go.

Even if we don’t want to imagine what someone else is going through, we can at least try to ease their passage. At some point, the unimaginable happens to everyone. You’re going to need help one day, so don’t shy away from offering yours today.

The good news is that the perfect response exists in another three-word phrase: “I love you.”

The good news is that the perfect response exists in another three-word phrase: “I love you.” It’s never failed the speaker or the receiver – and it usually begets a tender loving hug. Afraid that’s not enough? The human embrace has worked wonders for Amma, aka the hugging lady, who has put her healing arms around 30 million people worldwide. The suffering line up for miles to be in Amma’s grasp for a moment. And they leave with renewed hope.

Consider, too, doing something helpful instead of saying, “Let me know if I can help.” No one in a bad situation has the energy to think of ways you can be helpful to them. If you absolutely can’t think of how to assist –which is okay – then send a card with a sweet note. Or, drop off something they can literally hold onto: fuzzy blankets, scented oils, macaroni and cheese. Maybe a book written by someone who has stood in their shoes. “The Year of Magical Thinking,” by Joan Didion, comes to mind. 

When you’re at a complete loss for words, suggest taking a walk together.

The act of putting one foot in front of another literally propels us forward. Into the future. To better times. Toward the living. Since I quit drinking — a rather lonely and terrifying act — I have found great comfort in walking with a friend. Not only do I deeply appreciate her willingness to meet me on new ground, I am healing in the process.

Photo by Nancy Bercaw

Last May, I took my 11-year-old son to India despite significant fears about what we’d see and how it would make us feel.

There are few places on Earth where human suffering is on greater display, as illustrated by this article in the Guardian newspaper. I finally landed on the idea to make compassion part of our mission. Bear witness to mankind, as well as the Taj Mahal.

Leaving a restaurant on our first day in New Delhi, an impoverished lady handed me a note. After reading the words  —  I can’t speak. Can you help me? —  I stared at her face just inches from mine.

“Why can’t you speak?” I asked gently – unsure of  why I was asking the question. Did she know English? How could she answer? What did it matter? She was mute. End of story. The real issue was how, or if, to help.

Photo by Nancy Bercaw

In response to my question, the lady opened her mouth wide. And instead of turning away, I looked in. Close enough to nearly put my eyeball on her bottom lip. What I saw in there would have been impossible to imagine. Someone had cut out her tongue. I could see scar tissue on her palate. Whatever happened took place a long time ago.

I had no words either. I held her hand as we walked a few paces. I imagined what her life was like.

I had no words either. I held her hand as we walked a few paces. I imagined what her life was like. I imagined who had done this to her. I imagined how much it hurt. I imagined someone doing this to my sister, friend, or child. I went the distance with her – and into the far reaches of my fear – at least for a few yards and minutes.

Did I help her? I gave her a handful of rupees. Nothing compared to what I got  in return. Looking deep into the recess of a tongue-less woman’s mouth opened my eyes to depth of my own heart.

Imagine that.