You Don’t Know What To Say

None of us do, really


It doesn’t happen every day, but it happens often enough that we should learn how to react.

Someone loses a job. A pet dies. A parent dies. A spouse dies. A sibling dies. A best friend dies.

Someone is diagnosed with a horrible disease, or has their house foreclosed, or finds out they can’t have children.

When these things happen, we don’t know what to say.

So when we do say something, it’s often worse than saying nothing at all.

Don’t ever say, “I know what you’re going through” because you don’t, even if you’ve gone through something similar. We all respond to adversity in our own unique way.

Don’t ever say, “Well, it could always be worse.” No. It doesn’t help someone feel better by trying to deny what they are feeling. Just be with them in their sadness without trying to fix it.

Don’t ever say, “Everything happens for a reason,” or “Everything always works out for the best.” No. No. No. This can only make the person hearing you feel worse.

Don’t say, “If you need anything, just ask, ok?” None of us like to ask for help, especially when something horribly painful has just happened.

Instead, try, “How can I help?” or, better yet, just do something that helps.

It can be any of the mundane tasks of life: Fill up their car. Shovel their driveway. Drop off prepared meals they can microwave. Do their laundry. Clean up the dog poop in their backyard. Practical, boring chores that really do offer a needed service.

Look, we’re just trying to help. I’ve done all these things, even though I’ve known it’s lame and not helpful.

But we have to try to improve if we really want to help others we care about.

Just listening, just sitting quietly with someone who is grieving, is enough.

But if you must speak, tell them that you can’t imagine their pain but that you will be with them as long as you’re needed. Cry with them rather than trying to cheer them up.

Don’t make an awful situation worse, even without intent.

Ten or so years ago, my wife got a frantic call from one of her best friends late one night. The only words I heard were, ” What?! Michael’s dead?” Then Shannon just listened for several minutes, without another word.

Finally, I heard her ask, “Where are you? We’re coming.”

And so we did.

We drove to Michael’s apartment, where we met his parents, our friends. A few hours later, we drove their car home so they wouldn’t have to and we sat up with them as they grieved.

They told stories about him. They expressed shock and disbelief. They cried.

And so did we.

That’s all we could do.


Practice empathy.

Practice saying words that will heal and actions that relieve a burden.

You’ll wish your friends had practiced when the inevitable happens to you.