It’s one of the more difficult parts of being human.
Knowing what to say, and what not to say, when someone is going through a difficult time is so important, and yet, it can be extraordinarily hard.
I’ve been in this situation recently (and I imagine you have, too). It’s part of caring for and engaging with others, and yet it’s not something we talk (or even probably think) about often enough.
Make the dark small
One of the most powerful, though maybe lesser-known, lines in fiction comes from the Dean Koontz book, Brother Odd. Odd Thomas wisely says, “That is the best of all things we can do for one another: Make the dark small.”
It’s compelling in it’s simplicity, and in it’s truth. When someone is hurting, the best we can do is find some way to ease their darkness and pain. So how do we best do this?
When faced with someone going through a difficult time, my instinct is to not say anything at all. No one wants to be the one to say the wrong thing in tough situations, so, the common school of thought says it’s safer to just say nothing at all.
What I’ve learned, and experienced, however, contradicts this way of thinking. When someone is going through a tough time, saying something is eminently preferable to saying nothing at all.
Realizing the importance of saying something, and also recognizing our desire to not say the exact wrong thing, what is the best approach?
Illness, death, tragedy…these are tough, uncomfortable topics to talk about. What I’m learning is this: the intent behind your words matters so much more than your actual words.
Just like our instincts can detect phoniness a mile away, we can also detect kindness. People who have been through difficult situations often say they don’t remember specific words and sentiments. What they remember most is the intent behind the words. They remember your kindness, your empathy, and your genuineness.
This is such a comfort to me. What a relief to know I can authentically express my sorrow, knowing the intention and warmth behind my imperfect words is what really matters.
It’s human nature to want to “fix” a situation for a hurting friend. In difficult situations, though, advice, anecdotes and clichéd sayings can do more harm than good.
A simple, “I am so sorry you are going through this,” can be the absolute best sentiment you can offer. It expresses empathy and genuine kindness, which is often what the sufferer needs most.
Another equally powerful phrase is this: “You are not alone. We will get through this together.” When someone is going through a tough time, it’s common and natural to feel isolated. Letting them know they are not alone is immensely important and often a great comfort.
“Let me know what I can do to help” is probably the most common statement given when someone is going through a tough time. There’s nothing inherently wrong with it (since the intent is almost always positive), but I daresay we can do better.
People going through a tragedy are rarely clearheaded. Consumed by a fog of grief, it can be truly difficult to know exactly what is needed. Offering up specific help can be exceedingly valuable. Here are some easy examples of this:
“I’d love to bring dinner by one night this week. Does Tuesday or Thursday work best?”
“I’m at the grocery store. What can I bring over to you?”
“I have some free time this morning. Can I come over and sit with you for a bit?”
This also takes the burden off the sufferer to reach out for help. You are reaching out to them with a specific means of support. They merely have to accept your kindness.
Every situation, and every person, is unique.
A sentiment offered up one day may be appreciated, the same words extended another day may not. It can depend on many things, and my point is simply this: there’s no one size fits all solution for what to say or not say.
When in doubt, the kindest and most empathetic approach is to simply ask what is needed. A straightforward “would you like to talk about it or should we discuss something else” can go a long way towards showing compassion and care.
When someone is going through a tough time, let’s focus less on saying the exact right thing and make it a point to genuinely and empathetically acknowledge the difficulty of the situation. Saying the wrong thing, with good intentions, almost always trumps saying nothing at all.
Years from now, it’s not your words that will be remembered, it’s the kindness and warmth behind them that will be treasured.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. Leave a comment so we can continue the conversation.