One of my children had an epic tantrum this afternoon.
I tried a variety of techniques to try to help him move through his emotions: I left him alone. I hugged him close. I offered to play his favorite music or games. I suggested coloring or a snack.
At some point about 45 minutes into his upset, I remembered something.
I remembered how to just be when someone we love is hurting.
I stopped trying to fix his feelings. It was very, very uncomfortable—it hurts to see a child or any other loved one is hurting. However, after my desperate, failed attempts to help him, it was obvious there was nothing to do but let him know I was there and I was sorry he was sad, and then just sit until it was over.
I have some experience with this concept. I have had several sudden, traumatic losses. Later, I led a crisis team that sent volunteers to companion people in the first few hours following a tragedy. Through both personal experience and professional training, I learned what can be helpful and what can add to the already immense pain that people are carrying.
Here is what you can do when someone you care about is in acute emotional pain, whether due to a death, divorce, illness or other troubled times:
1. Offer your loving presence.
Most people who have had a special connection with a pet will tell you that our animals can sense when they’re having a bad day. How do our pets show us they know? Usually, they snuggle up to us quietly, giving the simple but powerful gift of their warm, loving bodies near ours. If you do nothing else, this is enough: simply be nearby, quiet and steady. We can offer hugs and closeness. We can show up, even when we’re scared of the pain.
2. Keep your words simple.
“I’m so sorry.” “I don’t know what to say.” These are simple but pure words for times of trouble.
Many of us have an urge to overtalk or to fashion phrases meant to help. But the truth is, when someone is truly suffering, there isn’t much we can do, and our well-meaning words can rub salt into the wound.
Examples of these types potentially damaging phrases are: “It was God’s will.” “She’s in a better place now.” “You need to be strong now.” “I know how you feel.” These may or may not be true, but they’re generally not helpful words when someone is in pain over the death or illness or separation of someone dear. Such phrases tend to come from our own discomfort with the immensity of their suffering and our desire to lessen it, and may—however accidently—diminish what your loved one is going through.
3. Offer something specific.
Sometimes, there are things we can do when a loved one is hurting. “Can I bring you some groceries?” “Would you like me to pick up your kids from school?” When someone is in shock or grieving, they are overwhelmed already. While genuine, asking “What can I do?” means they need to come up with something. Try scanning the scene to think of something specific you could do, and offer it up.
4. Bring small comforts.
After my brother died, one of my friends used to bring a vanilla latte to my house whenever she visited. It was a simple gesture, but those drinks let me know she was thinking of me, and indulging in something warm and sweet brought comfort.
5. Take care of yourself.
Though perhaps your loved was most directly impacted by what happened, you are probably shaken, too. And it takes energy to be there for someone, putting your own needs and wants aside. So make time for yourself, too. Make it to a yoga class. Take a nap. Bring yourself small comforts.
Fill yourself up, and you will be better able to offer your attention and care to others.
6. Be there later.
There is always a time when much of your loved one’s support system moves on. Perhaps right after the funeral, when the casseroles stop arriving and the flowers have wilted. Or a few months after the accident, when everyone expects things to be back to normal.
I have one dear family friend who sends my mom and I emails each year on the anniversary of my brother’s death. Despite the fact that fifteen years have passed, her note reminds me that my brother’s life is remembered, and the impact of his death is remembered. We live in a fast-paced, short attention spanned world. But grief is patient. Pain lingers much longer than most of us expect.
Let your loved one know you are still there, that you are still thinking of them, and that it’s okay that they’re still not okay.
Years later, I remember the moments of comfort and connection I experienced in those early days of shock. They made a difference. They brought warm pools of relief, soft blankets of faith. Kindness matters—especially in our darkest moments. Friendship matters.
All we have to do is show up.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Renée Picard