Comforting words

The Today show yesterday ran a segment on a subject dear to my heart. Entitled “What Do You Say?”, the piece focused on selecting the right words to say to someone experiencing a crisis.

There is no question that it can be awkward to be on the receiving end of bad news from a friend or colleague who has just lost a job or a loved one or is facing a frightening diagnosis or a failing marriage, and then be expected to respond with the right words.

We all mean well, but sometimes we misstep. Many people are natural-born fixers, so they want to say something to fix the problem, make it go away or distract the person from his or her troubles. Others are minimizers; they want to show the person that the problem is minor in the overall scheme of things. Some people find a way to make it about them. We all want to be helpful, but we all don’t have the guidance we need from the experts. Therefore, I applaud Today for getting the subject out in the open.

I began thinking about this 20 years ago, after experiencing a series of personal losses. At my lowest point, one of my closest friends, meaning well, responded, “I guess it just wasn’t meant to be.” That was the last thing I wanted to hear, and yet, she meant to offer comfort. I’m sure I’ve made similar blunders.

That’s when I began paying attention to how we console the ailing. Six years ago, I received training to become a hospice and bereavement caregiver, which turned out to be the most valuable education I’ve received.

If I had to boil all I’ve learned over the years into a few tips, I’d offer the following.

DO say “I’m sorry,” but try to avoid too many other sentences that begin with “I.” In other words, don’t tell the person how hard the news is on you. It might be better to say, “This must be very difficult for you.” It’s about the person in crisis, not about us.

DO offer help, if you are sincere, but be willing to back up your offer with action. If possible, be specific. Perhaps offer to take one’s children for an afternoon, fold a load of laundry or pick up a few things at the store.

DO offer a sympathetic ear, and make yourself available for a visit. Offer to take the person out, but make sure it’s not for the purpose of getting his or her mind off the problem necessarily. A distraction might be welcome, but so might the opportunity to talk. Let the person set the agenda and don’t invite other people who might inhibit candid conversation about the crisis at hand. It can be painful for the person to sit there and pretend nothing’s wrong.

DO listen. Let the person talk and don’t feel that you must always respond with words. Sometimes silence is the best gift.

DON’T say, “I know how you feel.” You might have been in a similar situation, but each person’s circumstances and feelings are different–and deeply personal.

DON’T respond immediately with stories of others you know who have gone through difficulties. If you do, try to avoid sharing outcomes.

DON’T trivialize the person’s troubles. To him or her, it’s everything right now. Don’t point out how things could be worse or that it must be happening for a reason or is part of a plan.

DON’T say any anything that begins with “At least…”

Anyway, these are just a few tips I’ve gathered. Perhaps you have more?


Filed under All Things Wordish, Family and Friends, Health, Movies, Television and Radio

8 responses to “Comforting words

  1. William Greene

    When my son died eight years ago, I called all those who may have known him, leaving messages for several. Of all the conversations and returned calls, I don’t exactly remember any of the words expressed. Only two instances remain clearly in my memory today:
    Marty simply hugged me for a very long time after the service.
    Jennifer returned my call and sobbed uncontrollably for a very long time with no words; I cried along with her.
    So, for me, it’s hugs and tears.

  2. Jo

    Good comment above. People often think they shouldn’t cry in front of the grieving, but it shows how much you care and gives that person an opportunity to shed tears, too. And your presence is far more important than the “right words.”
    I’d add that if there is an opportunity to affirm what the caregiver has done, do it. “You did an amazing job of caring for her.” “He could not have had a more loving father.”

  3. Great post.
    As an employee in the hospice field, one of the greatest lessons I’ve learned is that hard times and grief should not be avoided or minimized. They must be lived and gone through to get to the other side.
    And that there is no set amount of time for each person to accomplish this.

  4. Ellen

    Very helpful. Good list.
    I hate when people immediately start talking about their sister-in-law’s neighbor’s cousin who had the same medical problem… Who gives a crap about that when all you want is to be heard?

  5. Thanks, everyone, for your thoughtful comments. I confess, I was a little apprehensive about writing this post. I didn’t want to seem preachy, but am passionate about the subject. Obviously–and thank goodness–you are too.

  6. This is a brilliant post. I wish everyone had access to this information.

    I lost both my parents before I was even 30. The hardest thing for me to hear was “Only the good die young”. So many people said this to me and it made me so cross. Does it mean that old people are not good people? Does it mean that bad people can never die young? Does it change the fact that my parents died young and I miss them so much I can hardly breathe?

    For me, I found it really helped to be able to talk about my parents and share memories with others.

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