Things To Say When Someone Is Dealing With Tragedy

When someone we care about goes through something traumatic or suffers a loss (of a person, or a job, or their home), it can be hard to know what to do. We feel uncomfortable and helpless, worried that, somehow, despite all of our best intentions to make them feel better and loved and supported, we’ll end up making a terrible time even worse. We worry that we’ll take a wrong step or say the wrong thing. Often this very anxiety leads to accidental insensitivity: We worry about reminding them of their pain, so we stay too aloof, or we worry about seeming like we don’t care, so we smother them in concern. The truth is that when someone is going through hell, there is really nothing you can say to make it better. Toni Morrison described this impossibility after the 2012 death of her son, saying:

What do you say? There really are no words for that. There really aren’t. Somebody tries to say, ‘I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.’ People say that to me. There’s no language for it. Sorry doesn’t do it. I think you should just hug people and mop their floor or something.

While there is no way to “fix” someone’s grief, there are things we can do and say to make his or her life a little easier, and his or her world a little brighter. Before I get to these “Dos,” however, let’s take a moment to consider a few major “Don’ts.”

Things you might want to say that honestly won't help

1. "It’s better this way/ Your loved one is in a better place/ This is all part of God’s plan/ This is fate"

These kinds of statements are insensitive and maddening for people who have suffered a loss or are going through tragedy. You might say these words with the best of intentions, but they might be read as you essentially saying that it’s good that all of this is happening, and that your friend therefore shouldn’t be sad. It’s a way of invalidating your friend’s completely justifiable pain.

2. "I know exactly how you feel/ This reminds me of the time my [person] died."

You’re supposed to be there for your friend, so don’t make it all about you. I know that when you’re grappling to help a friend through a loss, your first instinct is to think of similar situations that you’ve experienced, but you can use these memories without making them the focus of the conversation. Instead of launching into a monologue about your own loss, think about how you felt in that experience and what you would have liked to hear at that moment. Use those feelings to guide you.

Furthermore, saying “I know exactly how you feel” can rub people the wrong way because, truth be told, you don’t. You just don’t. Insisting that you do can rob them of ownership over their own experiences.

3. Religious stuff

If you know for sure that your suffering friend shares your religious beliefs (say, you’re church buddies), then feel free to reference religion when you talk to him or her. But if you don’t know your friend’s religious stance, avoid making remarks about God or heaven or prayers. Doing so might put your friend in an awkward position, or make his or her pain worse. (For example, if you say, “Your mother is in heaven now,” but she doesn’t believe in heaven, then you’re only emphasizing to her that her mother is permanently gone. Tread carefully.) If you want to pray for someone, but you don’t think he or she would feel comfortable with the word “prayer,” just say, “I’m thinking about you and your family,” and then pray on your own to your heart’s content.

Things you can say that might actually help

1. "I’m sorry for your loss/ I’m sorry you’re hurting"

“I’m sorry for your loss” or simply “I’m sorry you’re in pain” may lack originality, but they do the job—acknowledging your friend’s pain without minimizing or justifying it. In the case of a death, it can be nice to add something more specific if you can. If you knew the deceased well, you can share a positive memory of that person; you can also reminisce about stories your friend told you about him or her (i.e., “I used to love your stories about your grandpa when we were in college, especially the one about the time that he…”).

2. Hugs (with consent because not everyone like to be comforted this way)

Sometimes the most powerful comfort isn’t verbal at all. When you’re sad or grieving, and there’s simply nothing to say that will make things better, a really good hug can be the best medicine there is.

3. "Can I help you with [practical thing]?" (But be specific!)

One of the hard things about going through a terrible loss or trauma is that, even though your world has seemingly ground to a halt, the rest of life keeps going. Dealing with the day-to-day practicalities of living can simply be overwhelming. So if you’re a friend of someone going through a terrible time, ask if you can help with things like errands, cooking, and babysitting. The key, however, is to be specific when you ask. If you simply say, “Let me know if you need anything,” chances are your friend will never take you up on your offer. Instead, offer specific services. Say, “I’m going to the grocery store, can I bring you anything?” or “I’d love to help you with dog care—could you use a dog walker in the mornings?” or “I love your daughter; is there an afternoon I could babysit?/ is there any carpooling I can help with?” or “I know you’re going to miss class for a few days; I’ll take notes for you.”

Meals are also usually appreciated—try bringing something by that’s freezable, so that your friend can pull it out at a time that is most convenient for him or her.

4. "Do you want to talk about it?"

I think a lot of people feel awkward around grieving friends because they don’t know if they should bring “it” up or ignore it. The best thing to do is just ask what your friend wants: “Do you want to talk about it?” And if she does, listen. If she doesn’t, let it go for now, and ask again at another time. You want your friend to know that she can talk to you about it if she wants—that she can be completely honest about how she’s feeling, and you’re not going to freak out or shut down.

5. Be there in the long run

When something terrible occurs or someone dies, there’s a lot of flurry when it first happens—funerals, memorials, family visits, friends calling. But then life goes back to normal for everyone except the few who are directly affected. This can be the hardest time—harder, even, than the moment that tragedy struck—because they’re left alone with their thoughts while the rest of the world has moved on. So be sure that your friend keeps feeling supported. In the weeks and months ahead, keep checking in, keep helping, keep giving hugs. Ask her how she’s feeling, and let her know that it’s ok to still be grieving. You’ll be there as long as she needs you.

Images: Andrea Schunert/Flickr; Giphy (4)