Comforting words: what to say and do in tough times

Comforting Words: What to Say and Do in Tough Times

When someone we know suffers a loss or is going through a difficult situation, we’re often not sure what to say. Sometimes we ramble or, worse, say nothing and avoid the person. But that doesn’t help at all, and it leaves us dragging around a ton of guilt. The next time you’re struggling with how to help, try these comforting words and ways to show you care:

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Your neighbor's husband has passed away.  

SAY THIS: “I know what a profound loss this is for you, and I want you to know I’m here if you need me.” Or you might say, “We all miss John—he touched so many people’s lives,” and then add a happy memory, such as, “I still remember the time he suggested grilling in the middle of that snowstorm in January; it was the best barbecue we ever had.” That kind of reminiscence “gives the mourner a terrific gift,” says Florence Isaacs, author of Just a Note to Say…The Perfect Words for Every Occasion.

“He lived a long life.” For the mourner, the life may not have been long enough, says Isaacs.

SHOW YOU CARE: Be specific when offering help, Isaacs advises, because the grieving person is usually numb. For example, ask, “Would you like me to pick up your relatives from the airport?”

Your friend tells you she's getting divorced.  

SAY THIS: “I’m your friend, and I’m always here for you.” Even if you’re burning to ask about details of the split, don’t. “You can validate your friend’s pain and commiserate with her without having to know all the gruesome details of the divorce and without stating your opinion,” says June Paris, coauthor of But I Didn’t Mean That! How to Avoid Misunderstandings and Hurt Feelings in Everyday Life.

“I never liked him anyway,” because the two of them could get back together, and more than likely your friend will not forgive you, says Isaacs.

SHOW YOU CARE: Go with your friend to her court date or lawyer appointment so she knows she has someone to lean on. Invite her out shopping or to a museum. She’s probably losing a large part of her social life, Isaacs points out.

Your sister-in-law has breast cancer.  

SAY THIS: “I’m so sorry you have to go through this,” followed by a hug. Or gently ask, “How are you managing? How are the kids doing?” and let her talk about her fears and what she’s experiencing, says Isaacs.

: “Everything is going to be OK.” You can’t promise her recovery, explains Paris. Also, don’t give medical advice unless you’re a doctor; that’s not what she needs from you.

SHOW YOU CARE: Offer to drive her to the hospital, do her shopping or bring her meals. And remember, just because she’s ill doesn’t mean she’s lost her sense of humor. “Send her something to make her laugh and recall the good times,” Paris suggests.

A co-worker has been laid off.  

SAY THIS: “I’m very sorry to hear the news.” Empathy goes a long way, notes Paris. You might also offer words of experience spoken from the heart: “I know from when I was looking for a job, it can take time to find the right position. Hang in there!”

“Try not to worry.” A job loss is all about worry, and denying your colleague’s feelings won’t help.

SHOW YOU CARE: In addition to words of encouragement, you can assist with the job search. For example, pass along names of helpful contacts. “She’ll appreciate your effort,” says Paris. And who knows? She may even return the favor one day.