COMMENTARY 806.2: Saying the Right Thing

When someone you care about is suffering greatly, what’s the right thing to say to make him or her feel better?

There are all sorts of traumas that can send us to the darkest dungeons of despair – the death of a loved one, being raped, getting a divorce, losing a limb, seeing a child sent to jail or on drugs. Whatever the cause, when we become so despondent or depressed that we start wondering whether life is worth living, we need a real friend.

I’m no expert in conveying condolences, but one thing I’ve learned is that trying to command, cajole, or convince a broken person to repress, reject, or disguise his or her feelings is more harmful than helpful.

Telling someone whose loved one died not to feel bad because “She lived a long life” or “At least he’s not suffering anymore” might offer some consolation, but it doesn’t go to the core of the hurt or acknowledge the loss of the person left to deal with the tragedy’s aftermath.

Even less helpful are remarks like “It’s not as bad as it seems,” “It could have been worse,” or “You’ll get over it.” However well-intentioned, attempts to give a grieving person a long-term perspective probably won’t work while the pain’s still intense and fresh.

Worst of all, telling a person to “Cheer up” or “Look at the bright side” as if the individual simply has to flip a switch implies that the person ought to be handling his or her sorrow better.

Finally, what makes us think we’re helping a grief-stricken friend by using his or her tragedy as an excuse to talk about ourselves? (“I know how you feel. I lost my dad last year” or “You’ll get over it. I did.”)

In the early stages, grief isn’t just an attitude, it’s an affliction. It can’t be turned off or toned down. It often has to run its course. Yes, there may be times when we can redirect a friend to other matters and more positive thoughts, but generally he or she has to experience and work through all the natural emotions that flow from the calamity including self-pity, resentment, anger, and fear.

The bottom line is, this is tricky territory. Most of us just aren’t as good as those who write Hallmark cards.

On the other hand, it’s just as bad if we become so self-conscious about saying the wrong thing that we fail to be there at all. All we can do is speak through our hearts, hoping our awkward words will be forgiven and our good intentions appreciated.

The best antidotes to hopeless grief are sincere expressions of love and support that prove life is worth living.

What do you think? Is there a right thing to say? What have you said or written to someone that meant a lot to that person? If you’ve ever experienced deep grief, what did someone do that uplifted you?

This is Michael Josephson reminding you that character counts.

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Comments 10

  1. I appreciate when friends express the notion that they are sharing the pain that I am feeling. I know that I certainly feel the pain when a friend is suffering and try to express that sentiment to them. In some ways, I hope that by sharing the pain, the one who is feeling it most will know that there is help with carrying the emotional toll.

  2. Sharing memories – the good times, the in-between times and the not good times.
    I send sympathy cards to each immediate family member of the deceased and write a different memory in each card that I have of their loved one. I’ve received thank you cards saying how wonderful it made them feel when they read the different memories.

    I also try to find a way to help – take the pet to the vet for shots; mow the lawn; help repaint the kitchen.

    It’s all about showing the “survivors” my love and friendship.

  3. Be personal
    A simple note of sympathy will keep its meaning for years if you use it to say something special about the person who has died. Be as specific as possible. Describe a particular incident you remember or a characteristic of the person who has died which you will treasure in your memory.

  4. Roy, I love your response. listening is often the best position, and understanding that there could be plenty of silence before the listening and during, is very important. I think the truth is there are many responses that will work, as long as they are sincere. Greg, I am Catholic but not all my friends suffering are (or religious) so some times saying you will pray for them could be taken as selfish or some times individuals are questioning God and this response could anger them.

    I do not want to come off preachy or that I am trying to tell anyone what they should or should not say, I just encourage everyone to try to consider the other persons situation and show sincere support, and they should be able to appreciate and accept your help/support, eventually and on their own time table (every one copes at different speeds in different ways).

    1. Chris, you are thoughtful in considering the other person’s beliefs, or level of religion, if they have one. Telling an atheist you will pray for him/her is insulting. Even though it may be well intentioned, such gaffs only make it worse when trying to comfort a grief stricken person. I wanted to share a couple of my experiences in the supportive work with the grieving.

      Having worked in oncology, and with patients from diagnosis, through treatment, and then to terminal status, until death, I have found that most people feel a desire to say something to the grieving that is hopeful, comforting, and of course, supportive. All of these should be based on what the one who is grieving believes, if you have any knowledge of them. If not, it is best to remain neutral, but caring, and keep it simple. It is not the time to try to share ourselves, or experiences with them, or say, “I know just how you feel”. One cannot possibly know how another feels, especially, “Exactly” or “just how you feel,” even if the same event happened to them.
      Most all, however, can accept that another person cares for them, feels sad, or pain at their loss, and wants to convey their feelings about the loss, and offer support to them. This is the time to say so.

      I have said, “I am sorry,” and got the reply, “why? You didn’t do it to him/her,” or “It wasn’t your fault.” So I learned to no longer use that common phrase.
      ‘I am sorry for your loss’, does convey your sorrow at the loss of the person’s loved one without taking on the responsibility of the event by saying, “I am sorry”.

      Also, as Roy commented, letting them know you will be there, and ready for them should they want to talk is an excellent way to show support at the time, and let the bereaved know you are able and willing when they are, at some time in the future. It is good to know there is a rock one can depend on when they need it.

      As Carol said however, one can feel awkward and not know what to say. A bookstore usually has books that offer collections of quotes. The books that tell you, “What to say when the need arises” ( I believe that is a title of one of the books I have come across, or close), and similar books, will offer assistance to become prepared for when you face such situations. There are some good ones out there. Also, some religious book stores have some that are geared towards speaking in support to a person of a particular faith. I hope you can find one that suits your needs. It is frustrating when we care, but are unable to express it so the other person can know, or feel our heart is with them, and want to help and support.

  5. I just feel so awkward, still, when my words fail me. When dearly beloved are suffering in a tragic loss that I cannot reverse. I just want to be there, even at great distance, and pray for deliverance. The anger that my bereaved loved one feels hurts me.

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