What to say (and NOT say) when a friend is suffering
Early last week I received some harrowing news. An old friend of mine lost her husband suddenly and unexpectedly. He was young. He was healthy. And they had a family. I grappled with how to respond. What do I do? What should I say? How should I say it? It took me awhile to wrap my head around the situation and get my own emotions in check. When I did, I wrote a message and later in the week, I sent a card. As I carefully chose my words, I reflected on my training as a psychologist in coping with grief and loss. And I realized how fortunate I was to have this training in guiding my words. So I thought I would share what I know. Below are a few key things to steer clear of saying to a friend who is suffering and a few key things to say or do instead:
Saying or doing nothing when a friend is suffering is possibly the worst approach. Many people are so concerned about saying or doing the "wrong" thing that they don't respond at all. This can portray insensitivity and indifference. Instead of inaction, send a card or a quick message that says something very simple, such as "I'm deeply sorry for your loss" or "I'm thinking of you right now." And it's better late than never.
I KNOW HOW YOU FEEL
This is not the time for comparisons. Even if you have been through a similar experience, your friend does not want to hear about it right now. Different people can have extremely different reactions to similar situations, so the likelihood of really and truly understanding how your friend is feeling is pretty slim. Instead of using comparisons, validate your friend's experience in a way that communicates compassion. For example, say, "I can't imagine how hard this is for you" or "Even though I don't know exactly how you're feeling right now, I care about you."
IT'S GOD'S WILL
Stating your religious beliefs to a friend who is suffering can communicate presumptuousness and may cause your friend to feel angry or confused (like "why does this person think I deserve to suffer such a tragedy?"). If you share faith with your friend, saying things like "You are in my prayers" can be helpful, but otherwise, leave God out of it.
LET ME KNOW IF YOU NEED ANYTHING
Not only is this extremely vague, but it puts the responsibility of asking for help on someone who is quite likely already overwhelmed. And it can come off as a cop-out. Instead, ask "What do you need right now?" and provide specific suggestions like offering to take your friend's children to school, scheduling a cleaning service, or making a meal. Sometimes the most helpful favor is your presence or lending a nonjudgmental, unimposing ear.
Experiencing a loss or coping with a tragic situation is never easy but having a good social support system can make it a little less difficult. Be that good friend and reach out- you could just make someone's day a little brighter. And hopefully these suggestions provide clarity and help you to effectively communicate genuine sympathy and compassion.