Witnessing someone we care about going through something painful can bring even the strongest of us to our knees.
We struggle with what to say, what to do, how to act, how to help.
It’s no accident that the language of condolence has been distilled down to an easy-to-remember script: I’m sorry for your loss.
Personally, I never find that sufficient, but at a minimum, it does no harm.
In the decade-plus that I’ve been helping people get back on their feet after life has knocked them down, I’ve seen quite a bit of harm. In fact, much of the work I do with clients involves recovery from unintentionally hurtful words and actions from loved ones. (This is on top of the work to recover from the traumatic event itself.)
I’ve often thought about writing a short book of phrases and sayings to use in response to difficult situations. Saying or doing just the right thing can feel like a balm on our battered selves. While that idea continues to percolate, I want to share some ideas. I hope you never have to use them, but, alas…
What doesn’t work:
Things will get better.
While factually true, it does nothing to tell the sufferer that you’ve heard them, which in effect is at the heart of most struggles. If this phrase begins to push itself out of your mouth, STOP. Swallow, bite your tongue, chug some water. Whatever it takes. Just. Don’t. Say. It.
Here’s a list of 101 ways to fix your problem.
This one tends to fall along gender lines. (Sorry, guys.) Don’t try to fix a problem you haven’t been asked to fix. And definitely don’t try to fix a problem that can’t be fixed. Listen first. Listen so hard that your attention beams a light on the solution.
Have your tried this? Or this? Or this?
A corollary to the fix-it response, this is what I call the interrogation. Pops up a lot with health issues – physical and emotional. Someone in the thickest, darkest part of their pain does not want to play twenty questions. They don’t want to be lectured about herbs, scream therapy or cupping. Maybe later. Definitely not now.
Uncle Charlie had it so much worse.
It took me years to not be floored by this one. It’s an attempt at perspective, I understand. But it’s about soothing as a salty lemonade in an open wound. Please don’t offer your comparators to another’s situation. Don’t even offer your own experience, unless asked.
Let me tell you about my blooming begonias.
Changing the topic because of your own discomfort is super yuckity yuck. So is talking about the weather or the details of your last meal. I know it’s hard to hold space, to access empathy, when all you want to do is run, run away. I know we think that NOT talking about the pain point will make it go away, but it won’t. And it diminishes the experience your loved one is going through. Keep your begonia story on the burner. Or share it with Uncle Charlie instead.
How can I help?
This one might surprise you. What’s wrong with offering help? Nothing, really. It’s just a timing issue. Someone still riding on the ouch-train does not need a project. Finding something for you to do is a project.
What might work:
I see how hard this is for you and wish I could do more to help.
Truth. It acknowledges what is present for you and opens the door for the sufferer to talk, or ask, or cry.
Nothing. Yup. Say nothing. Close your mouth, open your eyes, ears, and heart. Be with. Even when you feel uncomfortable, powerless, hurt.
How can I help?
Whaaaat? Didn’t you tell me NOT to say this? This offer works best when slipped around to the side. Ask the person’s family, spouse, or friends. Come up with a plan. Do it. Without asking. Show up with the lasagna, car service or stripper. (I’m not judging.)
Breathe like a Zen monk. Soften your expression. Sit and listen. Very occasionally, ask a clarifying question or encourage more sharing. (Use with discretion.) The important part is that you are willing and able to receive what the sufferer is offering. (Because everybody else is assaulting them with responses from the ‘what won’t work’ list. You’ll be a superstar!)
I love you.
When there is nothing that can be done. When the loss is so profound that it feels impossible to navigate. When words could never capture the depth of hurt or fear. Knowing that someone’s heart is with you is a tremendous solace. Use it liberally.