No Words: Three Responses When Hearing A Traumatic Story

No words.

It’s an expression used to describe a response to bad, shocking, and traumatic news. The news may be about ourselves, a person we know, or a situation that’s far from us.

The content of the story leaves us with no words: mute, at a loss, speechless.

We open our mouths only to clamp them shut. Our minds rifle though mental file folders trying to find the one labeled “Language”.

Why Don’t We Have Words?

We don’t lack language when hearing good news. Our speech doesn’t suddenly disappear during a celebration. We have words, exclamations, and shouts.

But when we hear bad news, our brains can temporarily freeze. Brain scans of individuals who have gone through trauma show that a part the brain called Broca’s region shuts down.

Bad news impacts psychologically and neurologically.

Examples Of No Words Stories

Recently, I experienced several no words stories.

  • Meeting a man whose teenage son was killed by a car.
  • Hearing a woman share that she is dying of HIV.
  • Listening as a middle-aged man described the effects of his abusive childhood on his current life.

No doubt, you’ve heard your share of no words stories. We have all experienced a loss of words when confronted with tragedy.

Yet, having no words doesn’t excuse us from responding with compassion and care to another’s story. It doesn’t mean that we have to respond perfectly, but it does mean that we can learn skills to remain with another person’s pain.

As the spouse of a survivor, I am accustomed to hearing no words stories. I’ve chosen to be intentional about remaining with my husband during his pain. Some might call it a gift, but I call it ‘practice’.  Practicing how to be comfortable with the uncomfortable.

How Can We Do It? How Can We Respond When We Don’t Have Words?

  1. Use body language.  Make eye contact. Nod your head.
  2. Show emotions. (Of course, not uncontrolled ones!) Teary eyes convey empathy. A furrowed brow shows concern.
  3. Listen. Silence is a friend. Give the story space. This is not the time to offer advice.

For You

Hearing bad or traumatic news is hard.  You may need time to process your emotions and thoughts.

Some ways that work for me:

  1. Crying and feeling strong emotions like anger
  2. Talking it out with a trusted friend
  3. Journaling

Have you recently experienced a no words story?

How did you respond?

I’d love to hear from you in the comments.