You’ve just heard that a friend is getting a divorce, a relative has passed, or a co-worker has just had a miscarriage. You immediately feel sympathy and you want to show you care but at that exact same moment, you feel awkward and uncomfortable and hold back because you don’t want to say the wrong thing.
So, what can you say to someone going through an emotional, mental and or physical trauma?
As someone who has survived medical, financial and mental trauma, let me assure you that we do not want you to solve our problems or make us feel better because it’s more than likely that you can’t, so don’t even try. I suffer from debilitating migraines and have been under the care of Australia’s leading neurologist. If there’s a new breakthrough treatment, he’s on the cutting edge so he’d be the first to know. So, when someone tells me they saw a miracle drug on the news last night that will cure me, forgive me if I don’t jump up and down in excitement. It’s not that I don’t appreciate that you’re thinking of me, it’s just that over the past eight years I’ve investigated and tried every treatment and trial drug available, so your good work is not helpful.
The other point to remember is that nothing you can say will take my pain away. Whatever the trauma is, you can’t fix my relationship, you can’t heal me, and nor can you understand what it feels like in my shoes.
Whatever you do, if you feel that these words are about to spring out of your mouth, stop and take a breath.
1. “At least you still have ...”
The words “At least” negate the importance of whatever the person has lost, whether a loved one, a baby, their health, their job or home. Avoid at all costs.
2. “Maybe it’s for the best.”
Are you omniscient? How could you possibly know? Please don’t assume the role of crystal ball reader.
3. “I know how you feel.”
Do you? You may have been through something similar and that experience would have shown you how you feel, not how I feel. Thank you for your care but the last thing I want to hear is how incredibly fast you recovered.
4. “… is really common”
Just because lots of people have cancer or have suffered pregnancy loss doesn’t make it feel better for me. I never wanted to join the growing club of cancer patients to the fact that lots of people are in it is not helpful.
5. “Have you tried…”
I appreciate your suggestion, but my mental and emotional frame of mind might not yet be in a place to accept or action it. Timing is everything so choose wisely.
Now that we’ve covered the “Don’t Say” list, here are some suggestions for the “Do Say” list that will communicate your care, love and concern.
1. “I’m so sorry that you’re going through this.”
This simple phrase expresses the fact that you care enough to say so.
2. “I know how much this/he/she meant to you”
This speaks of truly understanding me and my values.
3. “I’m so sorry this happened.”
A phrase that is suitable for most situations. It expresses your awareness of the situation and care for me whether we are close or acquaintances.
4. “How are you doing?"
If you choose this phrase, ask it and then be silent, taking your cues from me. If I wish to share, listen without judgement. If I’m shut down, tell me you are ready to listen when I’m ready to share.
5. “I’m here for you.”
Thank you. Just knowing you are there for me means the world.
The key point is to acknowledge my situation and my feelings. Don’t tiptoe around the issue because you don’t know what to say. Use words like these to show that you truly care.
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