What exactly should you say and not say when someone you know is suffering from a loss or an illness or God forbid, something devastating happens?
In other words, how can you truly comfort and support someone in a way that is genuine and that’s not right or worse, unknowingly offensive?
Here’s the thing.
These days we’re all communicating so often via text and email and social media any time there’s news. So it can get easy to rely on the sad emoji from Facebook or the hug symbol.
Right now, I wanted to do this article because I feel like all of us, we all have so much more love and compassion in our hearts, then often we’re able to express simply because we don’t know what to say. Or worse, we’re totally afraid of saying the wrong thing. So we say nothing, which isn’t good. So while the following list isn’t comprehensive, I really believe it’s going to get us started. And my hope is that you’re going to join in and help crowdsource even more wisdom in the comments below.
So let’s get started with what to say and what not to say if someone shares a scary and potentially life-threatening diagnosis. So I asked one of my best friends in the whole world, Sarah O’Choa, to help me out since she was diagnosed with cancer well over 10 years ago.
And here’s what she recommends.
1. Don’t say “I know exactly how you feel”
First, don’t say I know exactly how you feel, because here’s the truth. Unless you’ve been through the same experience, you probably don’t know exactly how someone feels. And most people know that you’re trying to empathize, but others may feel like you’re minimizing their experience.
2. Don’t push your opinions
Number two, don’t push your opinions, especially if someone is overwhelmed. So when you’re constantly bombarded with advice, it’s hard to tap into your own intuition. And depending on the circumstance, it may be just more appropriate to say less and hold back and listen more.
3. Don’t refer to bad examples
Number three, don’t share that you knew someone with the same problem or issue and it didn’t turn out well. That’s a big no-no, because it will not bring you guys closer.
4. Do try to help
Number four, do reach out and offer a loving shoulder to lean on, and even better try and plan something fun to do together. You know, when you’re going through the fire, a little sunshine really helps. And number five, do keep checking in. While it’s wonderful to tell your friend or your loved one to reach out, if they need anything, they probably won’t. So just keep checking in and proactively offer specific support. So, for example, I made a huge pot of veggie chili and I’ll be in your neighborhood at five pm. Can I drop some off for you?
Next, let’s talk about a few do’s and don’ts for when tragedy strikes like a fire or a natural disaster or something that completely wipes out somebody’s home or their environment or their business.
So these incredibly insightful tips are from Dr. Andy O’Connor. This woman’s house burned down not once, but twice. And she’s written about it extensively on our blog called Burning Down the House Blog. Here’s what Andy says.
5. Do not start with “At least…
Number one, don’t start with the words, at least as in, at least you’re alive, or at least you have insurance, meaning don’t try and force gratitude on the person.
6. Do not devalue the loss
Number two, she says, don’t say it’s just stuff or it’s just money or it’s just anything that dismisses the enormity of what the person’s going through.
7. Do not refer to God
Number three, don’t make it a discussion of God or faith or religion, even if you think you’re sure of the person’s religious or spiritual beliefs. So, for instance, if they go to your church or you’ve heard them mention God, don’t say something like God only gives you what you can handle. Remember, an event like this can really rock someone’s faith in their world. So don’t assume that they’re open to ideas like it was all meant to be, especially at this time.
8. I am so sorry. How can I help?
And number four, the only do from Mandy is to make sure you say these eight words. I am so sorry. How can I help? Finally, let’s cover some do’s and don’ts when someone loses a loved one. We found some incredible guidance from legendary grief and loss expert David Kessler and from Joanna Goddard of Cup of Joe. Here’s some of what David shares don’t say.
Things like he’s in a better place. There’s a reason for everything. It was her time to go. She was such a good person, God wanted her to be with him and don’t say be strong now, on the other hand, do say things like this. I’m so sorry for your loss. I wish I had the right words, just know I care and I’m always just a phone call away.
Cup of Joe has a post specifically about writing sympathy notes, which she posted after she lost her brother in law, Paul, to lung cancer. She offers these extremely helpful dos.
9. Send a mail card
So first up, do send a mail card. Not that online is wrong, but especially now in the digital age. An actual physical card can be something so special, it’s tactile. And you can literally hold those words in your hand and reread them again and again. She also shares do offer to help in specific ways. So saying anything I can do for you is nice, but actually offering specific ideas like come over for dinner and will grill for you makes it a lot easier for people to say yes. And finally do tell stories. The more the better. You can share your favorite memories of the person who died or talk about how they had an impact on your life. The Post says the grieving person is thinking about the person 100 percent of the time. So there’s nothing that you’re going to say to make her sadder. Instead, the stories you tell are going to make her feel more connected as we wrap up this post, a few reminders that we all need to hear. So no matter what goes wrong, the most important thing that you can do is be with that person, like really be there for them without judgment and without expectation. Listen to them. And if you’re physically together, hold their hand and really be by their side.
Wrapping it up
So let’s close up this article with a treatable never let your fear of saying the wrong thing stop you from saying something. Now, I would love to hear from you. If you have some other do’s and don’ts to share from your experience, please put them directly in the comments below. Now, if you do share a don’t do so with love and compassion, because after all, most of us genuinely want to be supportive, but we can all make mistakes, especially if we haven’t been through that experience ourselves.
The most important thing that you can do is be with that person, like really be there for them without judgment and without expectation. Listen to them. And if you’re physically together, hold their hand and really be by their side.