Finding the Right Words at a Bad Time
We’ve likely been in this situation, in one way or another. A friend’s husband has died or a family member just found out he has cancer. We don’t know what to say, so we blurt out the first thing that comes to our minds. When standing in front of an open casket, we exclaim, “Gosh, he looks great.”
Charles Puchta, founder of Care Ministry in Loveland, Ohio, recalls the story of one woman who had cancer. While walking through her small town, she saw a friend who was approaching her on the sidewalk cross the street to avoid her and then cross back after she passed by.
Puchta, a Certified Senior Advisor®, emphasizes treating someone who’s been marked by some kind of illness or tragedy as another human being. “Oftentimes, we don’t see them as people. If we don’t see them by their personhood, we define by their disease.” For example, because the idea of cancer may be threatening and make us want to turn away, Puchta suggests “renaming” the cancer something less upsetting, such as a broken leg.
In that way, the disease becomes less threatening, and, in turn, we become more comfortable approaching the person who has the disease. Puchta advises: “Ask, ‘How you are you doing?’ Don’t ignore it. Say what you would normally say. See them for who they are.”
Experts remind us to remember that the situation is not about us. Instead of worrying about ourselves, we should focus on the one who is grieving or suffering. Most of the time, the situation simply calls for an expression of compassion, even just a hug or a hand on the shoulder.
When we hear about friends who are suffering, either from the loss of a loved one or from a serious illness, we want to fix the situation. Or perhaps our friend’s situation brings up our own concerns about illness or death, and we react out of fear.
Sometimes, we try to say something profound, some bit of wisdom gleaned from a book or website, but such forced words often drop with a thud. Other times, we fall back on commonly used words of sympathy, many of which may sound insensitive to the suffering individual. The following sentiments mean well but may cause more pain than comfort:
“You’re So Strong”
The recipient of these words might not feel strong at all. In fact, they may be experiencing feelings of helplessness, despair and fear about the future. Telling them how brave they are could make them feel worse, because they think you’re implying they’re not coping as well as they should or that they are taking too long to get over a loved one’s death.
Instead, give your friend permission to feel sad, scared and a little needy. Just hearing those words might be enough for her to feel she doesn’t have to shoulder the loss on her own or put on a brave face.
“Let Me Know if I Can Do Anything”
Few people undergoing extreme grief or turmoil are going to take the time and energy to figure out what they need done. Or they may think that you are just being polite and saying something that makes you feel better. This passive expression of sympathy actually puts the burden on the person who is suffering to figure out what to ask you to do.
It’s much better, experts say, to offer to do a specific task. For example, call an ill friend and ask what you can pick them up at the grocery store. Bring a widow some prepared food, take them out for coffee, treat them to a movie or invite them to go on a walk. Stop by to check on an ill family member or find a chore that needs doing and do it.
Do something, don’t just talk about it. Just help, and don’t ask permission first.”
One of the worst things you can do is ignore someone who is suffering. People who have cancer or a terminal disease or who have just lost a loved one often feel very alone. Ignoring them just compounds the feelings of isolation.
You don’t even have to say anything. Many times people just want to be heard. Writes a parent: “My son died about four years ago. The worst part for me was/is that people are afraid to talk about him, like they’ll reopen an old wound or something. I’m sure it’s different for everyone, but my wife and I want to talk about him and remember the good times with him. . . . But you will probably see some tears, and that makes people feel like they’re hurting you” (from Lifehacker).