Comforting friends or family members during particularly difficult times in their lives can be hard to navigate. People often don’t know what to say or do for the person that’s hurting. This often leads them to fall back on social, albeit insufficient, niceties like “I’m sorry” and “Look at the bright side”. While these sentiments are often appreciated, they can feel lacking.
While you cannot protect your loved ones from suffering, there are a few ways you can appropriately show support. Recently, I have had clients and people in my personal life struggling with everything from work-life balance, relationship issues and anxiety to divorce, cancer, and everything in between. I have found that compassion and empathy are the best responses when there is no response. As a result of the sudden influx of these occasions in my own life, I thought I would come up with a “Do’s and Don’ts list” to help others that find themselves in a situation where they want to be there for their hurting loved one, but simply do not know how.
DON’T blame, shame or dismiss
- Beware of the “silver lining” comments
- “At least…” (dismissive)
- “Count your blessings” (message sent is “you don’t have a right to be upset”)
- “There are so many people who are worse off than you”/”It could be so much worse” (similar to the “count your blessings” comment, your loved one was feeling badly and now they also feel guilty about feeling badly)
- “I told you….” (Blame)
- “I just knew…” (Sorry, but it’s not about you right now)
- “You are the only…”/ “Everyone else…” (shame)
DON’T try to “fix” it
- This communicates your discomfort with their feelings
- Advice puts you in an awkward position, especially if they take it and it doesn’t go well
Humans are natural storytellers because it is how we process trauma. When we talk about our experiences we are able to make more sense of them and our brain is better able to digest them healthily, reducing the impact of the trauma. The most compassionate thing you can do is provide a safe place for your loved one to express themselves and their experiences while feeling your love and support.
DO identify feelings, summarize and reflect
- “It sounds like you are angry and sad about having to divorce and a little scared about the future.”
DO use open-ended questions to allow them to share their experience
- “Could you tell me more?”
- “What is that like for you?”
DO reassure them that they made the right choice to tell you
- “I am so glad you told me”/ “Thank you for trusting me”
DO help them to identify and express their needs
- “What do you think you need right now?”
- “Is there something you need from me to help the situation?”
At the end of the day, it’s all about connection. What can you do to connect with your loved one when they need connection the most. How can you be there with them as they process their trauma. One of my therapist idols, Dr. Brene Brown, does a beautiful job of explaining these Do’s and Don’t in the terms of “Empathy” and “Sympathy”. I am going to close this post with one of her videos and I encourage everyone to watch.