Where Logic Meets Love

What (Not) to Say to a Friend Going Through a Tough Time

Monday, September 17, 2012

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What (Not) to Say to a Friend Going Through a Tough Time | Faith Permeating Life

Last week was National Invisible Chronic Illness Awareness Week, which prompted some powerful posts across the blogosphere. One in particular that got me thinking was an article from CNN on talking to someone with a chronic illness.

It occurred to me that I've seen these kinds of articles come up for many different situations -- what not to say to someone struggling with infertility, or grieving the loss of a loved one, or who has cancer. I've seen ones from people who placed a child for adoption, those facing long periods of unemployment, and those struggling to lose weight. Each of these were written from someone's personal experience with that particular situation, but I see common threads running through all of them. I thought perhaps it would be helpful to summarize all these tips.

The details will, of course, vary by situation, but these general guidelines should point you in the right direction for providing support to anyone in your life going through a major struggle. Sometimes the wrong thing will still slip out -- I'm still trying to learn all these lessons myself -- but knowing what's helpful and what's not is a good place to start.

What Not to Say or Do

Don't Minimize the Situation
Big, painful life situations make us naturally uncomfortable, so it can be tempting to try to make the situation seem less threatening. This includes telling someone they don't look sick or that their situation could have been a lot worse or basically anything starting with "At least..." But trying to make a situation sound not as bad is unlikely to make someone feel better; instead, it may come off sounding like you're telling your friend they're overreacting. Their emotions are real, and the last thing they need is to feel bad about feeling bad.

Don't Offer False Certainties
Similar to minimizing the situation, you might hope that a difficult situation is over as soon as possible. This can come out in statements starting with "I'm sure..." I hear this in my job search now: "I'm sure you'll find something soon." Saying "I'm sure you'll get pregnant soon" or "I'm sure you'll beat this cancer" isn't helpful because you can't be sure about those things, so rather than sounding reassuring, it sounds more like, "Let's just think about when this will be over so we don't have to talk about how hard it is right now."

Don't Try to Solve the Problem
If you've gone through the exact same situation (or you're a professional), then at the very least listen to what they've tried first, and then you can ask whether they've considered the treatment or support group or doctor that you found helpful. But if not, realize that this person knows a lot more about their situation than you do and has probably already heard about and possibly even tried that thing you read about in a magazine or that your sister's coworker had such success with. Acting like you're an expert on someone's situation makes it sound like you think they're unable to get help on their own and also puts you in a role (problem-solver, doctor) other than the one you need to be playing (friend, support, confidant). Even comments about attitude -- "You just need to relax!" or "Think positive!" -- can be irritating by both minimizing the problem and making it sound like it's your friend's fault that they're having a difficult time because they're not "relaxed" or "positive" enough.

Don't Rush to Empathize...
This isn't the time to pull out your own horror stories and compare. Even if you've been through the same thing, your friend may have a completely different experience or different feelings about it. When you rush to assure your friend by saying, "I know exactly how you're feeling," you may make them feel unwelcome to share what they actually are feeling. Once they've had a genuine opportunity to tell you what they're going through, it can be appropriate to share that you experienced something similar if they don't already know that, but leave it up to your friend whether they want to ask questions about your experience rather than assuming they want advice or to compare notes.

...Or to Differentiate Yourself
It sounds like a compliment to say "I could never do that" or "You're so much stronger than I am." But until you're going through a difficult situation, you don't know how you'll react. This is in the same vein as "God only gives us as much as we can handle." It makes it sound like this is only happening to your friend because they are an unusually strong or brave or patient person -- how unfair! It can also come off as a subtle withdrawal of support: "You've got this. You're tough. You'll get through it fine on your own."

What to Say or Do

Admit Your Lack of Understanding
Your friend isn't coming to you because they expect you to have all the answers. It's OK to say, "I can't imagine what you're feeling right now, but I'm ready to listen if you want to tell me." Or "I really don't know what to say, but I'm here for you."

Be a Listening Ear
This is not the same as pressuring someone to talk about what they're going through. This is letting it be known that if your friend wants to talk, you are there to listen without comment. This is listening to your friend's worries and pain without trying to come up with a quick fix or platitude. Listen to understand what's going on, how your friend is feeling, and how you can best help, if at all. If you don't have time right then to give your friend your undivided attention, you can say something like, "I want to hear how you're doing. Can we have lunch this week?"

Validate Your Friend's Feelings
If your friend needs to cry, give them permission and a box of tissues, rather than saying, "Oh, don't cry." There are probably many people in their life right now who will ask "How are you?" and don't actually want to hear the answer if it's not "fine." It can make it seem wrong to be sad, frustrated, angry, tired, in pain, or whatever they're feeling. Be the person who doesn't try to minimize or change their feelings, but who tells them whatever they're feeling is totally understandable. Saying something like "That sounds really rough" can validate that they're not overreacting to be upset about the situation.

Offer Specific Help
At least for me, I hear something like, "Well, if there's anything I can do to help, just let me know" as an insincere conversation ender and not as a genuine offer for help. If you sincerely want to do something to help, make a specific offer: "I'd be happy to bring you dinner tomorrow night. Is there anything you can't eat?" or "How about I watch your kids some day this week so you can [rest, get out of the house]? What day would work best for you?" If you don't know what would be most helpful, ask sincerely, "What is the most helpful thing I could do for you right now?" That's much better than a vague "Let me know if there's anything I can do." And follow through on anything you offer!

Talk about Other Things, Too
You don't want to completely ignore a difficult situation, but it's also not helpful to make every conversation with your friend about their situation. If you've expressed how sorry you are, given them space to talk, and offered help, you don't need to keep bringing it up at every opportunity. When I had mono, I got so sick of my coworkers looking at me like I was going to die -- I wanted to be treated like a normal employee and not make my health the topic of every conversation. If your friend is the kind of person who needs to talk about their problems and emotions all the time, you'll probably know. Otherwise, create the safe space for them to talk, but treat them as the same person they've always been, with a variety of interests and aspects of their life.

Have you been through a difficult life situation? What did your friends or family members say that you found helpful?


  1. This is a good post for me to read right now- my friend's mom recently had an aneurysm (she's recovering well and her prognosis is good, thankfully), which caused my friend to postpone her wedding. I agree with everything you wrote here, and they're good things to keep in mind!

    1. I'm so sorry to hear about your friend's mom! And I'm glad to hear she's recovering well. I hope these tips are helpful as you look to support to your friend through this rough patch.

  2. This is a good summation. The one about rushing to empathize is especially true . . . horror story one-upmanship is a very unpleasant game. Usually it's better to keep your mouth shut and nod. And the specific offers of help is so true.

    One thing I have seen in some of these articles, though, that I disagree with, is that the person in the X class of problems (whatever the article is about) ought to be exempt from ever hearing about problems of the opposite nature. So, for instance, a person struggling with infertility should never hear you complain about pregnancy trouble. Or someone unemployed should never hear about your lousy boss. This is unfair and, I think, an unhealthy attitude for the person who adopts it. Empathy is a two-way street. Just because someone else's problems are different doesn't mean they aren't real. I don't demand a right to be free from people complaining about meddlesome parents just because my mom died when I was 22. It's a healthy part of dealing with pain to make yourself look past it and listen to other people. (And yes, it's not something people should force you into by "well you think that's bad" or "you don't know how good you have it")--but if you want other people to be considerate of your problems, you should, as soon as you are able, reach out to them in the same way.

    1. That's an interesting point, and I would say it might depend on how fresh the pain is. I remember after my cousin's baby was stillborn she wrote about how hard it was to hear or see anything pregnancy or baby-related. I don't think she went around asking people not to mention these things to her, but like I said in my post on LGBTQ-related language, I don't think there's anything wrong with educating yourself on the fact that saying certain things could cause someone pain who's going through a difficult time. My cousin has since had two more children, so I doubt that she still has trouble talking with people about pregnancy and birth.

      So no, I don't think someone should be forever exempt from hearing about other people's problems because of their own painful experiences. But I also don't think it's unreasonable, if someone's specifically providing advice on helpful and not helpful things to say, to tell people, "Hearing about this is really difficult and painful for me right now, and might be for a while. Please be aware of that."

  3. This is a really good list. I recently had surgery and so I have a lot of diet restrictions, and there have been so many times people have tried to "help" and it came across as trying to solve my problem, like "oh, you can't eat this, so here's something stupid that you don't like instead" and I felt like I had to offer a point-by-point rebuttal to convince them there just IS NO SOLUTION. And that's not a point I'm happy to argue for. :(

    1. Not sure if you already saw this post and its comments, but yes, this is SUPER annoying. People seem to forget that those with dietary restrictions can also have dietary preferences, and just because something is "safe" to eat, doesn't mean they want to eat it!

    2. OH MY GOODNESS YES. That is exactly how I feel. Everyone is rapid-firing stupid suggestions that I totally don't want, and I'm obligated to explain, one at a time, why all of their suggestions are no good. Geez.

      Also, the biggest diet restriction is I need to avoid foods with too much fat. It kind of makes me uncomfortable because I'm really skinny (and I actually lost a lot of weight from being sick)- what if people think I have an eating disorder when I ask for fat-free salad dressing?

      I remember one time I was having breakfast with one of my friends, and I said I shouldn't have too much bacon, because of the fat, and she was like "oh I'm sure it'll be fine" and I wanted to say "DO YOU THINK I'M MAKING THIS UP? Do you think I just said that because society tells us we need to make excuses for eating 'bad' foods? Dude, I FEEL SICK A LOT because of eating- that is a VERY REAL effect." (But no, I didn't actually say that...)

  4. The one thing I disagree with is "Don't try to solve the problem"

    I find needing help and getting sympathy more annoying than needing sympathy and getting help.

    If you think you have an answer, please do let me know. I'll let you know if I've tried it. The attempt lets me know you care.

    Maybe it's a male/female difference. Or maybe I'm just weird.

    1. Interesting that you mention the gender aspect, as this is something the Deborah Tannen specifically addresses in her work on gender and communication: Men are more likely to offer solutions when women are looking only for sympathy/empathy. I think one thing that helps a lot is to be clear about what you need -- Mike and I know we can be upfront with each other and say, "I'm not looking for advice right now." And certainly if someone asks, "What do you think I should do?" it's reasonable to provide suggestions. But otherwise, I see this as a common complaint, particularly with medical issues, that every conversation turns into "Well, you should try this." "Actually, I have." "Well, my friend did this and it worked." "We can't afford that." "Have you thought about this?" "I already discussed that at great length with my doctor and here are all the reasons we're not pursuing this path." Rather than getting the support they need, the person has to defend their decisions constantly from people who know very little about their specific situation.

    2. I've also heard that it's a male/female difference- and that's definitely been the case for me and my boyfriend. There have been times I got mad at him for trying to solve my problem because it felt like he didn't care about how I feel. My emotions are real and I want them to be acknowledged- I want someone to care.

      But it was helpful for us to communicate and I found out he cares about me and didn't want me to be sad, so that's why he was trying to solve my problem. But still, what I really needed was someone to just care.

  5. Late to the party but AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAMEN to all of this. As you know, I've experienced my husband being laid off twice--oh the comments from people! It's funny, the closer they were to me, the more off-putting the things were. Why is it that because you're my friend from HS or my aunt you feel you can say such things? Conversely, when I broke my hand two years ago, I got the most random comments from strangers (and lots of touching, I have NO idea as to why).

    I often wonder if we gain a certain insight when we go through bad times that helps us to help others in the future...whereas people who say the off-putting things, perhaps they've never been through anything as bad as what I'm experiencing, so they simply don't know? I don't think it's just that, because there are some very tactful people in the world and they all couldn't have gained that much wisdom through external factors. I think some of us are born (or learn early) to be wiser than others. Some people are ignorant or are raised ignorant. Maybe through more exposure to people dealing with difficulties can awareness be spread?

    1. I do think it has more to do with the individual person than with what they've experienced. One person goes through X situation and sees how many annoying comments they get and vows never to do that to others, while another person also goes through X situation and now considers themselves an expert whose job it is to give advice to those going through the same thing. For myself, I've thankfully been through very few major life challenges (unemployment and mono were the only two examples I could think of), but I actively seek out information like the above about how to be a better support to people. But I do think it helps to know people going through difficult times if you take the time to listen to them; I learned a lot about talking to someone who had lost a child from my cousin's openness about her experience and from the One Extraordinary Marriage podcast (they had a miscarriage). So it goes hand-in-hand -- if you're willing to listen and learn, then the more you listen and learn the better a support you can be for others in the future.


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