What to Say to Someone Who is Going Through a Difficult Time.

We have all witnessed someone close to us suffering through terrible times. In those dark days, it is often words that provide the first salve to shattered emotions. We desperately want to pluck the perfect words out of the air to support our loved one. But, as we live more and more of our lives from behind a screen, we sometimes can’t find those words we wish we could offer. Our hearts are in the right place, but our tongues seem to freeze.

My son, 2016

Years ago, I was on the receiving end of countless words of comfort. My son (then 15, now 24) was desperately ill, and the path ahead was going to be four long years of brutal chemotherapy—and everything associated with the ghastly treatment. Even in my stunned state, I quickly realized that most people had no idea what to say to me, even as I sensed they desperately wanted to acknowledge the situation. Some offered amazing words, but not surprisingly, some said things they made the situation worse. It has taken me years to reflect on what words and comments brought comfort and what was unhelpful or (in one case) bizarre.

My personal suggestions are simple:

The moment you hear someone important to you has received terrible news, immediately acknowledge the other person’s pain. I know this is hard, but trust me, your silence is far worse. Just say or write, “I am so sorry this has happened to you.” And, the sooner you do this the better. Often people will keep silent because they don’t know what to say. They are not showing kindness by sparing their friend from potentially clumsy words; they are merely making it about themselves. So, the moment you hear the news, instead of thinking how uncomfortable you feel, think about how they are feeling. Your kind intent will shine through your less than perfect words.

Please do not under any circumstances say anything along the lines of, “It will all be okay/everything will work out.” You don’t know this, and it minimizes a horrific situation. For me, the most helpful response was, “You will get through this.”  This statement implied they knew I had the strength to deal with the situation. They didn’t make empty promises, and this showed an understanding of the gravity of the situation.  

Next, for me, I wanted people to avoid using platitudes to explain why this happened. “Everything happens for a reason.” If you can explain the reason why innocent children get struck down by horrific diseases, I’m all ears. Another all-time favorite, “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.” Trust me, the person dealing with the situation has grave doubts about their strength to get through this. Comments like this make them feel they aren’t quite measuring up. When you feel a platitude coming on, stop and go back to, “You will get through this.”

Avoid vague offers of help and focus on concrete actions. Hundreds of times, I heard or read the words, “If you need anything…..” I guarantee the person going through hell doesn’t have the mental energy to respond to nebulous offers. For me, the help that made a difference was the friend who called every single time she was in the supermarket and offered to pick up anything. Arriving home after 12 hours in the hospital to find a gallon of milk or a box of kitty litter on my porch was priceless. Gather a group to arrange concrete help: gift cards to restaurants that deliver, or pay for a cleaning service or a dog walker. 

Lastly, and this is the one I feel most strongly about, do not be tempted to draw an equivalency. Under no circumstances, use the words, “I know exactly how you feel….” No, you don’t. You are not that person, and no matter how you attempt to compare their pain to something you went through, it comes across as though you are trying to outdo their horror. I had many, many people telling me they knew exactly how I felt. Some examples from my experience:  They knew how I felt because their son broke an arm in 4th grade. They knew because they once spent 5 hours in the ER. Or, they knew because their 90-year old grandad was in the same hospital! The most bizarre example was when a friend told me she knew exactly how I felt because this was how she felt when her basement flooded. 

Through all the years, I told myself that every single comment was said out of love and that even the most awkward, stumbling, or strange comment was just a well-intentioned person struggling to voice their emotions. 

We all wish that only good things happen to our friends and loved ones, but life doesn’t work that way. I hope you never have to use my advice, but if you do hear terrible news, I trust my blog is helpful.

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