It’s a helpless feeling. Someone you love is struggling or grieving, and you want to help but don’t know how. We mean well, but often don’t know what to say or even avoid saying anything at all in fear of saying the wrong thing. Before I knew better, I cringe at how I used to confidently proclaim, “But everything happens for a reason!” while a loved one grappled with a senseless tragedy or unexpected hurdle. To help support people enduring a dark cloud hovering over their life, these strategies may provide some much-needed lifelines as they begin the meandering journey towards the light at the end of the tunnel.
Instead of: Showing Sympathy: Sympathy takes place when we feel badly for someone, but gloss over their pain like it’s a hot potato because frankly, we don’t know how to respond, or it makes us uncomfortable. Rather than wading through the mess with the person, we might try to add our own silver lining to the situation or justify it with grandiose, cheerleader-like statements, such as “At least you have a husband!” in response to concerns over a crumbling relationship. In most cases, our hearts are in the right place and we desperately want to help the person, so we focus solely on the optimistic aspects, grasping at them like straws, instead of addressing the person’s pain and supporting them through it.
Try: Showing Empathy: Sympathy’s more compassionate cousin is empathy: knowing that you may not be acquainted with that person’s exact situation, but you can relate to their feelings of hopelessness or despair and you don’t turn away from them. We can’t always fix that person’s pain, but we can sit with them in the dark until things get better.
After decades of research in empathy, vulnerability, shame, and courage, Dr. Brené Brown explains:
“Empathy fuels connection. Sympathy drives disconnection. Empathy is feeling with people. Empathy is a choice and a vulnerable choice because in order to connect with you, I have to connect with something in myself that knows that feeling. Rarely, if ever, does an empathic response begin with ‘At least...’ If I share with you something that is very difficult, I’d rather you say, ‘I don’t even know what to say right now, I’m just so glad you told me.’ Because the truth is, rarely can a response make something better. What makes something better is connection.”
You can view Brené Brown's short but powerful distinction between empathy and sympathy here:
Instead of: Saying “Let me know if you need anything.” This inadvertently puts the pressure on the one struggling to either a) assign people duties, or b) ask for help, which they may not be comfortable doing, even during an extremely tough time.
Try: Knowing your strengths and specifically offering them to the person in need. If you’re a great cook? Drop off a meal on their front porch and send them a text so they know it’s there. If you’re hyper organized? Put together a meal train for them. If your kids are in the same activities? Offer to help with the carpools. If you live nearby? Volunteer to shovel snow off their driveway or mow their lawn (just not at the crack of dawn, for the love of humanity.)
After she unexpectedly lost her mother at the age of 16, Treacy, now 31, is still touched by how people took action to alleviate some of the immediate practical matters. “One family friend came over and did our laundry, while others organized carpools, provided meals and did the grocery shopping for us. These are the tasks my mom would have done, so it helped to fill some of that void when she wasn’t there anymore. The meals especially added much-needed light to the situation, as my siblings and I would joke ‘Ohhh I wonder what’s for dinner today!’ and guess the meals.”
Someone struggling is likely receiving dozens of vague offers for help, which can be overwhelming and ultimately, not helpful. Offering a specific task and springing into action is much more tangible and comforting. However, keep in mind that a family is most in need of help in the months following a crisis after the initial shock and support dissipates, not solely during the immediate days afterwards.
Instead of: Making reassuring statements over something you can’t control. When we want to encourage someone facing uncertainty, it’s tempting to confidently proclaim that everything WILL be okay. It can seem inspiring to tell someone who is facing a serious diagnosis that they are going to get healthy, or a loved one experiencing infertility that they will get pregnant, or someone applying for a job that they are going to get the offer, or a person experiencing heartache that this is the year they meet “the one.”
Try: “I’m here for you every step of the way, no matter what.” The truth is that life can be uncertain, making words of utmost certainty seem more hollow than encouraging, unable to dust away the cobwebs of doubt that have already stubbornly taken up residence in that person’s mind. Rather than focusing on what you can’t control, emphasize what you can control: that you will be there to love and support that person and their family through thick and thin, no matter what happens.
Instead of: Assuming that other people process difficulties the same way as you. Keep in mind that some people wear their hearts on their sleeves and process verbally, so discussing a difficult scenario is the most therapeutic. Others process situations internally and may prefer not to talk about it. Wherever you fall on the processing spectrum, know that other people have different styles of coping. Forcing them to talk may cause additional stress, while giving the person too much space may give the impression that you ghosted them.
Try: Asking how you can best support him or her if you’re not sure how. Once practical matters like meals and carpools are handled, the person struggling may need emotional support. If you’re not sure of the person’s particular processing style, it’s okay to ask how you can best support them. Something like, “Do you want to talk about it, or would you prefer some space? I’d like to help you with whatever makes you the most comfortable” can be very helpful.
Instead of: Not wanting to upset the person, so you don’t acknowledge the situation to avoid bringing up bad memories. This is especially easy to do after some time passes, or if you run into that person unexpectedly. But completely ignoring their experience may turn into an awkward, insensitive elephant in the room.
Try: “I just want to let you know that you’re on my mind and I’m here for you.” The person who is going through a hard time has not forgotten about it, months or even years later. It is most likely constantly on their mind and can be reassuring to know that other people still care once the dust settles and time passes. Rather than asking specific questions that they may not want to address, this statement gives them the option to know that they can.
Whenever possible, try to remember key dates or holidays that would be especially comforting for that person to have someone reach out. Whether it’s an anniversary of losing a loved one, a due date for a pregnancy that ended in miscarriage, or a particularly hard holiday like Mother’s Day, Father’s Day or Memorial Day, sending a text or a card to let that person know you are thinking of them is a small gesture that leaves a lasting impact.
Types of Unhelpful Information Receivers
Glennon Doyle knows a thing or two about heartbreak. In her #1 New York Times Bestselling memoir Love Warrior, she documents her excruciatingly painful journey of piecing her shattered life back together after learning of her husband’s infidelity throughout her marriage. She shares how seemingly everyone in her life had strong opinions about what she should do, doling out advice like hotcakes and often leaving her feeling more broken or confused. Ultimately, she categorizes and describes the types of unhelpful reactions, which include these types of responses:
As I read her list, I recoiled at how I have done a bit of just about every one of these actions at some point in my life. I’m grateful for her raw and honest insight, as sometimes knowing what not to do is sometimes as helpful as knowing what to do.
The Beauty of the Hard Times
Ultimately, we can rarely take someone’s pain away, but we can pull up a chair and sit with them to help lessen the burden of carrying it alone. Rather than agonizing over saying the right words, remember that simply listening is much more healing and powerful. What makes life beautiful is not the absence of hard moments: it’s the beauty of people showing up in those hard moments, reassuring you that you are loved and aren’t alone. That we’re all in this together, celebrating the moments on top of the hills and pulling each other up from the valleys.