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.