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How to talk to people who are hurting

Monday, August 26, 2013

When confronted with someone's grief or pain, someone's terror for a sick child or other loved one, someone's own illness, it is common and understandable to want to ameliorate that grief or pain or terror by cheering them up.


When you tell a person that it's happening for a reason, or that it's all going to be okay, or that God has a plan, you are putting a burden on an already overloaded person. Your interaction includes an expectation of a response, and that response contains an expectation of feeling better. You may not realize that you are doing this, but trying to cheer someone up by minimizing their grief or pain carries the message that says, "You should stop feeling the way you are feeling and feel better now."

That's trivializing what the person is going through. And creating an expectation that they must either respond to or silently try to ignore. In trying to help, you are making it worse.

So what should you say? Some version of "I am so sorry. This is terrible." It carries no expectation that your words will magically lighten their burden; it just acknowledges their pain. By acknowledging their pain, and not putting an expectation upon them to feel less of it, you are allowing them the choice to share more if they wish. If it's someone you know well, they might want to talk about it. If they don't, it's not a reflection on you.
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Member Comments About This Blog Post
    Thanks for that blog. Well said... emoticon
    1641 days ago

    I was thinking about you several times yesterday, with the back-to-school activities going on.
    1641 days ago
    You are right.. and what other said are right.. I think when someone says something it's because they really don't know what to day and they feel they need to offer some type of help, and why their intentions where not to make you mad or feel worse they may of been un prepared or educated in the fact to help someone in need so yea a profession who deals with this everyday said it right they listen.. and be quite..

    but I know for me.. if I was talking and crying and all the person did was listen to me.. heck I could do that to a wall, and not get feed back.. sometimes I like feed back and weed out the bad advice and take the good.

    Hugs to you, your in my thoughts and prayers..

    1641 days ago
  • OPTIMIST1948
    1641 days ago
    Unless you have been through it, it is hard to know what to say to someone. I heard so many hurtful things and even hear them 17 years later. I learned over the years that the people that helped me the most are the ones that didn't say something at all. They let me talk, or just sat there if I didn't want to talk and were patient enough to let me cry while I talked. Sometimes laughing does lift some of the sadness. I was able to talk about some of the fun things that I did with my son, things that made me smile or laugh and being able to talk about them helped my heart remember that there was happiness with him too. That his death wasn't the only thing in his life.

    Sometimes I just with there was a class thought on this subject. Because a person that feels they don't know what to say are the ones that say the things that hurt the most and they don't know how much it hurts. We are all going to be in that situation at one time or another where we have a family member or a friend that is very ill or a sudden death in the family, or now days where we are chatting with people from all over the world and we reach out for kind words but find ourselves upset because some of their words hurt. But I guess people don't really want to talk about illness or death until it happens and then they are stuck with nothing to say.
    1641 days ago
    A a grief counselor, we listen and let the client lead the talk, with my young widow/ers group they help one another in ways that others can not.
    1642 days ago
    1642 days ago
    My you find peace. You are in great pain just now; know others do care. Let the tears come, as they must. Then I wish you peace in your own way and in your own time.
    1642 days ago
    I couldn't agree with you more. I have been amazed at some of the thoughtlessly hurtful things people have said to me trying to cheer me up.
    1642 days ago
  • HILLSLUG98239
    Thank you for your honesty and your courage.

    When my first husband died, there were people - friends - I never heard from again. I think they were so paralyzed by not knowing what to say they decided to say nothing. And then their absence made them feel guilty, so they avoided me all together.

    The real winners? "What can I do to help?' - which is exactly what you did when you got that horrible phone call. It's much more direct than "Let me know if you need anything."

    And yes, "I am so sorry" and "I don't know what to say" are probably the best thing to say. We've all suffered losses and tragedies, but no one person's situation will mirror another's. I really hated "I know what you're going through." Really? How can you know that? You may have suffered a horrible loss, but unless you've lost a loved one to a violent crime, you really have no idea what I'm feeling. And in your situation, unless someone has seen an innocent child they love suffer from an inexplicable and capricious disease, they have no idea what you're feeling. I know people meant well, but I just hated that line. I wanted to scream every time some said it.

    After Mike I died, there were times I made no effort to hide my sorrow. I'd hear a song lyric that would rip my heart open and I would cry, regardless of the situation. Did it make people uncomfortable? Undoubtedly. Did I care? Not so much. We are a social animal. Caring for each other is part of our make-up. We must expect to feel some discomfort in carrying out that mission.

    So, thank you for sharing. Thank you for not hiding your pain and your rage. Thank you for letting us, your on-line tribe, share some of your burden. Thank you for trusting us with that.
    1642 days ago
  • UKMOM638
    I agree with you....any feel the same way... although I don't think most people do this on purpose it is hard to hear those words when you are grieving... emoticon
    1642 days ago
    emoticon Well said.
    1642 days ago
    It is difficult to know what to say when someone is grieving. I'm sorry just doesn't seem appropriate sometimes. My mother in law died recently and people would say I'm sorry. But really, for my husband and I, her passing was a welcome relief in some ways because she had been ill for so long and was now at peace. I miss her but at the time, I was grateful for the life she had and that she was at rest finally. People would look at me funny when I would say, its okay, it was her time. I just walked into her room today and I felt her presence very strongly. We have guests coming that have to stay in that room. I'm rambling, but your note has got me thinking. We are all thinking of Becca and her family and it is hard to know what to say or do. God comforts me in a special way but my way is not necessarily your way. At any rate, we are there for you.
    1642 days ago
    emoticon Excellent advice! Acknowledging the pain someone is in is powerful - I believe its important to do. Another thing is in the days or weeks following a tragic event, I find it often opens conversation if I ask that person if they are sleeping ok. OFTEN the answer is no, and by understanding this (it is a common occurrence) I think we offer validity to their suffering. Letting them talk to us about their feelings or just about the event can be helpful too - I used to worry that I didn't have the right words to say, but now I realize I don't NEED the right words - being there to listen to them and offer comfort is enough,
    1642 days ago
    I have to agree with you. When I cry, my husband tries to change the subject and make me laugh and most times it makes me so mad. Even when he makes me laugh, it still doesn't really help in the end. The reason I was crying usually comes right back as soon as I think about it again.

    Any news on Becca?
    1642 days ago
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