When a friend is going through a tough time, whether it be an illness, a breakup, coming out, getting laid off, a death in the family, or a recent diagnosis, it can be difficult to figure out what to say. As their friend, we want to help and have the best of intentions, but we sometimes put our foot in our mouths, or worse, we’re so afraid of saying the wrong thing that we avoid the person and say nothing at all.
Jason Jaime, LMSW, is a counselor who works with a lot of people going through rough times. He says it’s important not to give words of wisdom, or advice. “The best thing to do is listen. People are problem solvers and we don’t like discomfort by nature. Our brains try to rationalize, solve and minimize challenges to rid ourselves of the discomfort as quickly as possible.” But a good friend is not there to fix the problem, they are there to actively listen and support. Here’s how.
What not to say: “It’s going to be okay.”
Say this instead: “I’m so sorry you’re going through this.”
When someone we care about is hurting and we tell them that everything is going to be okay, it doesn’t communicate empathy. “This completely invalidates them and their own abilities to problem solve,” Jaime says. “Simply reflecting people’s own emotions and struggles back to them instead has a powerful effect.”
What not to say: “I know how you feel.”
Say this instead: “How do you feel?”
Everyone goes through pain differently. Your friend’s journey isn’t going to be the same as yours, even if you’ve been through a similar situation. Because your mom had cancer, it does not mean you know how your friend feels who is also going through a family member with cancer. Remember what helped (and didn’t) when you were going through it and try those things.
What not to say: “Let me know if there’s anything I can do.”
Say this instead: “I’m bringing dinner over tomorrow./I’m picking up the kids and taking them to the waterpark./Can I book you a massage for Saturday?”
When you ask someone to tell you if they need anything, it puts the burden on them to figure out what you can do and reach out to you. You know your friend, you know what they like, so do it. There are so many ways you can be there for them, and they’ll appreciate even the smallest gestures.
What not to say: “Everything happens for a reason.” or “The Lord works in mysterious ways.”
Say this instead: “This really sucks.”
Many people find comfort in faith during times of trouble, but no one wants to believe that their pain is what their higher power wanted for them. Acknowledging how bad the situation is will not make the person feel worse, they already know how bad it is. Acknowledging their pain enables them to share their burden.
Everyone wants to be able to say something to make a loved one stop hurting. But as Jaime says, “Often times, when someone is going through tough times they just need your ears and your heart.” Sit with them, text them (without expecting reciprocity), or call. Knowing that you’re thinking of them and rooting for them will mean the most.
If you’re concerned about the safety and wellbeing of your friend, it’s appropriate to suggest seeking additional help, such as talking to a trained listener here on 7 Cups or working with a therapist.