What To Say In Life's Most Difficult Situations

Photographed By Winnie Au.
What do you say to someone reeling from one of the most difficult events he or she will ever experience, whether that's the loss of a job, the end of a relationship, an illness, a miscarriage, or a loved one's death? While every person and situation is different, first recognize that it's not your responsibility, or even within your ability, to resolve that person's pain. "It’s important to honor their unique experience and ask them what it’s like for them," says Joyce Marter, licensed psychotherapist and CEO of counseling practice Urban Balance. This is a better plan than encouraging that person to see the glass half-full or pointing out ways in which his or her situation could be worse.

Marter's advice echoes the "companioning philosophy" developed by Alan Wolfelt, PhD and grief counselor, who explains that caring for someone who is suffering "is about being present to another person’s pain; it is not about taking away the pain." This tenet can guide you as you struggle to find the words to say to friends, family members, and acquaintances whose lives are shifting in difficult ways. Read on for expert advice on how to meet someone at his or her level of suffering; many of these tips apply across experiences. And, even if you feel ineloquent or overwhelmed, don't say nothing. A simple "I don't know what to say; I am so sorry" is an honest expression of caring that trumps silence, no matter the situation.

Finally, "You have to take care of yourself, in terms of your own health and wellness, in order to be a support for others," Marter points out, "and if you allow yourself to exhaustively be available to them, then you’re going to end up depleted and maybe resentful." In a way, when a loved one is wrapped up in transition and unable to be there for you, you're mourning that person's absence. Prioritizing self-care ensures you'll both get what you need until the dust starts to settle. Ahead, five common-but-difficult scenarios, and what you can say to support someone who is dealing with each of them.
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Photographed By Winnie Au.
Being fired or let go can feel embarrassing, infuriating, relieving, terrifying, or any combination thereof, but if leaving a workplace wasn't (entirely) the departing person's decision, it can challenge his or her self-image. Marter cites "the importance of providing empathy and support" when someone you care about is pushed out of a job — "asking people what you can do to help them in the process, reflecting that you believe in them and that you want the best for them, and giving them the benefit of the doubt [instead of asking], 'Hmm, isn’t this the third boss [who has fired you]?'"

Phrases such as "What can I do to be here for you right now?" and "I'm confident you're going to find an environment that's right for you," or even a straightforward "I believe in you," are more helpful than observing the weaknesses in a person's LinkedIn profile. If someone asks you for job-hunting assistance or professional feedback, that's one thing, but your first offering should be a listening ear. "A really important piece is to practice empathy, the ability to put yourself in the other person's shoes and imagine how they might be feeling," Marter tells us. "[This means] listening to them and reflecting back to them that you understand how they might be feeling."

It can be frustrating to watch a professionally-challenged acquaintance struggle, so if you do have what you feel would be a constructive recommendation (to speak with a career coach or practice for an interview with another person, for example), first ask gently if you can voice your thoughts. For bonus points, begin with "Here's what's worked for me" rather than "Here's what you should do." That way, you're sharing your knowledge, not trying to solve someone else's problems.
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Photographed By Winnie Au.
While we endorse any excuse to dig into a pint of Ben & Jerry's, not every breakup is a cause for mourning. "For example, with divorce, people might say things like 'I’m so sorry,' but the person may have gone through huge acts of bravery to come to the point [of] being able to leave his or her marriage, and that may be a very positive thing for them," Marter explains. "Instead of saying 'I'm so sorry' or assuming the person is feeling a certain way, say, 'How are you?' or 'What can I do for you?' or 'How can I be a support to you?' or 'What do you need from me?'"

Do you sense a question-asking trend here? We often take for granted that others work through life-altering transitions such as breakups the same way we do, but just because you process your emotions by verbalizing them, for instance, doesn't mean that everyone else does the same. Maybe your recently divorced or newly single friend/family member wants to celebrate with a night out, or maybe he or she would like to lie on the couch with you in front of Adult Swim and talk about anything but romance. That's "companioning" in action.
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Photographed By Winnie Au.
Jennifer Oradat, co-founder and editor-in-chief of parenting site Mom Babble, was 24 years old and 12 weeks pregnant when she suffered a miscarriage in 2005. Her husband had just been deployed for military duty, and she was living in a city halfway across the country from her family, with few friends nearby. "The only thing I wanted from my friends was for them to sit next to me as I cried just one more time," she recalls. "I remember thinking that someone who's never had a miscarriage should refrain from offering advice to a woman who is grieving the loss of her child. I didn't need to be fixed. I needed to heal, at my own pace and in my own time."

What Oradat sought wasn't guidance or false cheer, but a safe space in which to feel and express her emotions fully. Marter stresses the importance of accompanying someone in her suffering instead of attempting to show the way out: "[Don't] say things like 'Well at least you already have two kids' or 'At least you were only eight weeks pregnant; it’s not like you were eight months pregnant,'" she advises. "That’s really minimizing of the loss that the person has experienced." There is no such thing as the suffering Olympics, and the feelings of someone you care about merit respect, not comparison or dismissal. A few phrases to ban from your consolation vocabulary: "It would be worse if," "You should be thankful that," and the dreaded "At least."

"What helped the most [after my miscarriage] was to hear that people were thinking of me, or praying for me, or that they were sorry for my loss," Oradat adds. "I was, and am, eternally grateful for that."
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Photographed By Winnie Au.
After L.A.-based designer Emily McDowell was diagnosed with stage III Hodgkin lymphoma at age 24, she was dismayed by many of the insipid sympathy cards she received and even more so by the silence of overwhelmed or unsure acquaintances who didn't reach out to her at all. That's why she launched her line of empathy cards for serious illness — which, she explains, offer "better, more authentic ways to communicate about sickness and suffering." Messages such as "Please let me be the first to punch the next person who tells you everything happens for a reason" and "I know #fuckcancer doesn't help you get through it" invert clichés and honor the individuality of those with illness, reminding them that they are people, not generic victims.

Offering someone who is sick the opportunity to share his or her day-to-day experiences achieves the same effect. "We might not even be aware that our loved one is suffering unless we compassionately recognize that they’re going through a big life change," Marter shares. "When someone has a chronic illness, it affects their identity as well." She adds that while encouraging someone who is sick to seek group support can be awkward, "support groups are really important for people with chronic illnesses, because their feelings and experiences can be normalized and validated."
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Photographed By Winnie Au.
Kristin Meekhof was 33 years old when she lost her husband to adrenal cancer only eight weeks after his surprise diagnosis in 2007. "My friends sat shoulder-to-shoulder with me and didn’t necessarily expect anything from me but were there just to listen," she tells me. "What was also helpful was people who did physical things for me — my one friend came in and literally filled up my freezer [with] beautiful meals... That was more helpful than saying, 'What do you want?,'" Meekhof adds. "When things are open-ended like that, my experience is that most people can’t think of something." So, consider skipping the question, "What can I do?" and going straight to "I would love to bring over some food and household supplies later."

As for what not to say, again, avoid minimizing the loss. "We were at the funeral home, and this woman said to me — I’ll never forget it — she said, 'Honey, don’t worry; you’ll find someone really soon," marvels Meekhof, whose book, A Widow's Guide to Healing: Gentle Support and Advice for the First 5 Years comes out in November. Meekhof also observes that her physical and emotional support network dried up about six weeks after her husband's funeral, and that it's important to continue to check in on the bereaved past the initial flurry of consolation — especially around birthdays, anniversaries of deaths, and other meaningful dates. Sometimes, people will avoid bringing up someone who has died for fear of upsetting that person's loved ones, but more often than not, people are happy for an opening to remember and celebrate someone they have lost. "I would also add that one shouldn't be afraid to give the one in grief a hug. Sometimes, this gentle gesture is needed the most," Meekhof states.

Lastly, it's important to remember that grieving, no matter the cause, has no universal progression or timeline. "Sometimes, it’s hard for us when people we love are grieving and they’re not themselves," Marter says. "A year later, we may be feeling some frustration that they’re still in a place of sadness, but there’s no magic formula in terms of how long grief takes to process." The closest thing to magic is empathy — toward both yourself and those in pain.
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