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April 6, 2018

5 Things Never to say to Someone who is Struggling.

I’ll never forget that visit.

I was called to the ICU for a patient death.

I swiped my badge to let myself into the unit and went straight to the nurses’ station. The nurse manager led me into the room where an elderly man lay lifeless on the bed, his wife standing next to him staring blankly.

I introduced myself and asked if there was anyone I could call for her, if there was anything she needed, and attempted to make a connection with her. She quickly said no and indicated that I was intruding. I wanted so badly to say the right thing, anything that would ease her sorrow. Instead, I experienced a big fat empathic fail.

We’ve all been there: a funeral visitation, the hospital room of a friend who’s just received a frightening diagnosis, a coffee date with someone who’s been downsized at work. Frequent encounters with people who are struggling with grief, fear, sadness, and anger are not uncommon and often leave many of us at a loss, not knowing what to say, how to say it, or what to do to help. It’s a conundrum shared by medical personnel, parents, siblings, friends, ministers, and even people who have been trained to show empathy in difficult situations.

When I was a hospital chaplain, I struggled daily with what I could say or do to help someone feel better. I had the opportunity to witness (and, unfortunately, offer) both incredibly empathic and horribly inept responses to tragic news and difficult circumstances.

Encounters between the hurting and those who desperately want to help often resembles watching two trains collide—a mashup of honorable intentions and utter despair. Trust me—it isn’t pretty when one’s response to someone else’s pain serves only to discount, discredit, or dismiss.

It seems that, in general, we are a culture that has very low tolerance for discomfort. We want a pill to swallow or a quick fix to make the pain go away and restore the bliss of ignorance.

So, when someone we care about is hurting, we tend to throw at them the quickest, easiest fix we can imagine. The problem is that what we say or do often serves only to make matters worse. When we’re uncomfortable with another person’s pain, we often resort to clichés and euphemisms that ultimately add insult to injury.

So, here are a few phrases to avoid saying when someone you care about is hurting:

1. Any phrase that begins with the words, “At least…”

I hope this is obvious, but, “At least you know you can get a job” is not a helpful response when someone is struggling after being fired. “At least he lived as long as he did” is not the thing to say when someone is grieving. I know it’s tempting to point out the silver lining when someone is having a hard time. But it’s dismissive and takes permission away from the person experiencing the pain.

2. “Everything happens for a reason.”

I know this one is a favorite for many, and for some people it does bring an amount of comfort. Here’s the thing, though: for others of us, it smacks of self-righteousness and dares suggest that God or the universe (whatever your interpretation) is playing around with our lives and the lives of those we love. Not cool.

3. Advice, particularly that begins with, “You should (or shouldn’t)…”

Most of us love to give advice, especially when someone is facing a situation that feels similar to something we’ve been through. “You should hire a lawyer.” “You shouldn’t let this get you down.” “You should talk to your boss again.” “You should ask for an autopsy.” Y’all, seriously, no. Just don’t go there. Even with good intentions, our advice is wrought with our own perspectives and judgments. The person who is in pain does not need advice. They need to be heard, validated, and loved through their hurt. (More on that in a minute.)

4. Really anything that tries to explain or take away the other person’s pain.

Here again, most of us really like to feel helpful, and often this leads to us making guesses or assumptions about situations that really only add to the confusion or dismay. “They probably just thought you were overqualified.” While this seems like a kind thing to say, if someone didn’t get the job they really needed, it isn’t helpful. “The doctors surely did everything they could. Just be thankful your dad didn’t suffer.” Ugh. Again, I know phrases like this one are often stated with the best intentions, but, they lack empathy.

5. “There must be something you need to learn.”

Okay, I’m ending this list with this one even though I could probably go on for pages. Indeed, we all often learn important lessons through our struggles. But, this usually happens in hindsight and without someone else’s prompting. Saying this to someone who is in the middle of a struggle feels patronizing and, frankly, mean.

It’s essentially like saying, “You’re so hardheaded, the only way you can learn this lesson is to lose your job, have a miscarriage, or get a divorce.” It also reeks again of God/the universe toying with our lives. That’s a hard pill for a lot of us to swallow, and for many of us, just plain awful theology/philosophy.

So, you may be wondering, “Well, what in the world can I say?”

The truth is, the best gift we can offer to someone who is suffering is our presence.

Being able to sit with someone else’s pain, to be available and undistracted, to bear witness to and share in their feelings is basically the definition of empathy. Brené Brown defines empathy as “feeling with people.” Even if you’ve never faced the circumstances the other person is facing, chances are you’ve experienced the same feelings at one time or another. Empathy is tapping in to those feelings and maybe saying, “I hope you know how much I care about you and am here when you need to talk.”

One of my favorite quotes is from Henri Nouwen:

“When we honestly ask ourselves which persons in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.”

If I could have a do-over on that hospital visit, I’d probably go in and pull a chair up next to the bed, set a box of tissues (the good kind, not hospital-issue) on the bedside table and gently touch the woman’s shoulder as I quietly exited the room. I totally understand the desire to fix or take away pain, but it has been my experience that most often the best thing to say is nothing at all.


Author: Marjorie Avent
Image: Lulu Sunset/Flickr 
Editor: Catherine Monkman
Copy & Social Editor: Sara Kärpänen

Melissa Moffet & Waylon Lewis talk Dating...Mindfully.

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LEIGH VANDERHAMM May 18, 2019 10:13am

if only everyone could or would read this article. life gets messy for us all and this compassionate post and it’s poignant points will help those suffering a well as their inner circle of friends and family. when my dad was diagnosed with early onset alzheimer’s 9 years ago, i understood that none of my dearest friends had ever experienced anything remotely equivalent to what my family and i were having to deal with. as the author points out our society has a low tolerance for dealing with uncomfortable situations. and that became overtly obvious when “trying” to talk to my friends about normal, light-hearted things. in the end, they fully embraced the “silent” part, while bypassing being present and ultimately not acknowledging that i was still their friend. the sadness of losing who i thought were my closest friends still exists, but i’m grateful for having gone through such hard, yet all too common, life lesson.

bpd.fitzpatrick Apr 18, 2019 1:44pm

If you are not a touchy feely person just say to the suffering person ” I feel totally inadequate in the face of your pain, but I hug you from deep inside myself and surround you with what seems to me be the best I can give of myself”. Showing your own vulnerability and inadequacy will help the suffer feel that they are not alone. Pat answers and remedies are not the answer – don’t try to “fix it” with words!

bpd.fitzpatrick Apr 18, 2019 1:21pm

I was diagnosed with cancer in December 2018. Almost died in Dec 18. Have had 3 ops since December (had one a week ago) and am due for 6 weeks of therapy in a months time. Cancer keeps growing. I am a VERY POSITIVE young guy and am VERY UPBEAT about this. Today a christian woman quoted the Bible (Epistle of James) to me – part that says “consider it pure joy when you suffer ….”. Does this person have ANY conception of what suffering is? Has she in fact ever suffered? Yes I know the doctrinal interpretation of this passage and its reference to suffering for “what is to come”. But that does not detract from the presumptuousness of thinking she can advise me on how to feel about this disease. I don’t even consider that I am really suffering – when I consider what some people have to go through – for years and years! I asked her if the little 6 year old child lying in a hospital bed with terminal cancer should also consider it pure joy! The disease is not the problem, people’s tactlessness and lack of understanding is. For god’s sake if you don’t know what to say just give the person a hug and hold their pain for half a second – its not that hard. Is that difficult? Religious people do more harm than good and in my experience are the most hurtful. I will continue with my positive attitude and will not bow down to pressure from religious zealots who only care about eternity and not what is happening in the here and now. I love this life right now – however long I may have to live and don’t give a rats a… about eternity. We only have NOW!

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Marjorie Avent

Marjorie Avent is a counselor turned life coach, writer, and presenter. She lives in beautiful Charleston, South Carolina with Murphy, her miniature Goldendoodle. When she’s not working, she loves taking bike rides around town, reading, and enjoying the outdoors. Connect with her on Facebook and Instagram.