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What to say when a friend is hurting

March 18, 2019

We’ve all been there.

That awkward pause when you find out a friend is getting a divorce. Or dealing with a drug overdose in the family. Maybe it’s a devastating medical diagnosis, a job layoff or the loss of a beloved pet.

You want to be supportive. And say the right thing. How do you know, though?

What not to say

Here’s a summary of what not to say. These phrases can come off as trite and insincere. They can even make matters worse.

• “I know what you’re going through.”

No, you don’t. You’re not in their shoes. Even if you’ve had a similar experience, it was YOUR experience, not theirs. Colored by your life filter.

Don’t discount what they’re going through. Or their vulnerability to share it with you.

Even worse, resist the temptation to relay your own story — or someone else’s. This doesn’t help at the moment. Maybe later — if you’re processing the situation further — not at the outset, though.

• “Everything happens for a reason.”

I’m a big believer in life lessons. And that our greatest changes come from the hardest falls.

In crisis situations when things are at a fever pitch, though, your friend won’t be able to relate to this wisdom. It may come off as dismissive.

As human beings, we’re resistant to change. That’s why it can take an external event to propel us onto another path. I often say, “I wouldn’t have scripted it this way, although that’s exactly what I needed to get into motion.”

The thing is ... this kind of perspective comes later. Not in the heat of the moment.

• “Let me know if you need anything.”

Your friend needs multiple-choice solutions, not an essay question. They certainly don’t need to use their energy to come up with options for you. They’re just looking to get through the day.

Come up with specifics. Take his or her dog for a walk. Offer to babysit or drop the kids off at their activities. Mow the lawn. Run some errands. Send a gift certificate for a massage or a meal.

Drop off takeout. Leave it outside their door, though. In time, your friend will want to discuss things. Be sensitive, though, at adding to their platter right now.

Besides, they may have been up all night, watching Netflix and drowning their sorrows. And may not feel very presentable.

What to say

Whatever you say needs to be authentic and to come from your heart. While you may want to use your own words, here are some helpful sentiments.

• “I can’t imagine what you’re going through.”

This phrase evokes honesty and respects their situation. It opens the door in case they want to elaborate further, although it doesn’t call for an answer.

• “The pain must be unbearable. I’m so sorry you’re having to go through this.”

Be there. Show support — even if you’re not called upon immediately.

• “Just know I’m here for you. And that I’ll sit with you in your pain.”

• “I wish I could take away your hurt. I’m here to listen — any time — if you want to talk.”

• “Be gentle with yourself. You’ve been through a life-changing experience.”

Passive forms of communication

Now is NOT the time to come in with guns blazing — to save the day. Resist the urge to rush in and rescue. It’s not about you. It’s about them. Take your cues from your friend. This is a process.

Text messages, emails and cards will likely work better than phone calls. You want your friend to know you’re “there.” These passive forms of communication will allow them to respond on their own time.

And resist the urge to keep score. The important thing is that you reached out, not whether they responded right away.

Remember — your intention is to provide comfort.

What does support look like to you?

I first heard this question in a seminar years ago, and it has always stuck with me. It’s easy to think you have the right answer because you know how YOU would like to receive support. It could be different with your friend, though.

It may involve being with them, but not talking about the situation. Sometimes physical activity can be helpful — a round of tennis or golf, for example. Or taking in a movie.

The thing to remember is ... it may involve a different approach from the way you’d welcome support. So, be open to the possibilities.

The cone of silence

Some of you may remember the old TV show, “Get Smart,” in which intelligence officer Maxwell Smart would invoke “the cone of silence” to protect conversations.

Remember to acknowledge your friend for their trust in you. Thanks for your confidence and trust in me. It goes without saying that everything remains confidential.

How can I love you best right now?

This is one of my favorite phrases, relayed by therapist Rhiannon Webb.

It’s a twist on the support question above. If you’re particularly close to your friend, this may be a heartwarming approach.

And it could actually serve as an ongoing touchstone for our important relationships — every day.

No need to wait for a crisis!

©2019 Linda Arnold Live Life Fully, all rights reserved. Linda Arnold, M.A., M.B.A., is a syndicated columnist, psychological counselor and Founder of a multistate marketing company. Reader comments are welcome at linda@lindaarnold.org For information on her books, go to www.lindaarnold.org or Amazon.com.