What to Say and Do When Life Is Scary, Awful, and Unfair to People You Love
This year my little sister suffered a significant personal loss when her childhood best friend passed away from cancer. She was a radiant and incredibly brave young woman who lived without fear, laughed until she cried, and partied until her shoes fell off. She was the life of the party, with both her infectious personality and her rare beauty. Even in the final stages of life, she never let on to her friends and her two young daughters that she was being taken by a deadly disease or that she was suffering, even when it was clear that she was. Her smile shined through.
My sister sat by her every step of the way, physically, mentally, and emotionally. And she did not waver in her dedication. She cared for her, held her, nurtured her, fed her, healed her, and listened to her, even made her family dinner when she couldn't herself. The personal sacrifice she made to be there for her friend (and my sister has three children of her own) was one of the most beautiful and motivational things I'd ever seen.
That kind of love and compassion is rare not because people don't care anymore; they just don't know how. I think we struggle with what to say, how to act, and what to do when someone is hurting, when that someone has suffered loss or an unexpected personal tragedy. Seeing my sister taught me so much about how to be present for someone else. We often use the excuse of being too busy to care when we have our own issues and balls to juggle, but thanks to Kelsey Crowe, author of the new book There Is No Card for This: What to Say and Do When Life Is Scary, Awful, and Unfair to People You Love, it doesn't need to be that complicated. Ahead, Crowe shares some simple strategies on how to care for, listen to, and be there for people in need.
MYDOMAINE: Knowing what to say to someone who is going through a tough time is never easy. What's the first step toward helping them?
KELSEY CROWE: Reaching out to someone in a difficult time like loss or illness or really anything emotionally (and possibly in others ways too) can make us feel awkward. That's because we (rightly) imagine this person is feeling extra sensitive, and fear that whatever we might do or say could do more harm than good. Maybe too, that our small effort is not sufficient to the task of providing the kind of comfort that can heal someone's pain and fix their problem.
Those fears that we'll make things worse or that our gesture is inadequate can make us shy away or, conversely, be overbearing in how we help. The idea of putting your oxygen mask on first, which is [my co-author] Emily [McDowell's] brilliant phrasing of this stage of "the work" of empathy, is about developing trust in ourselves that despite how flawed we may feel, it is our willingness to try that matters more than almost anything else, meaning that just showing up as you, not as some "perfect helper," is what someone in a difficult time needs most.
MD: What are some of the things we can say to comfort and help?
KC: If we are talking with someone in their difficult time, the easiest way that we can provide someone comfort is in the listening and not in the talking. Our book describes some simple tools to help with that because it is more than just "hearing" someone and then waiting to respond. If we can fully trust in the power of listening (the tools we provide in the book talk about how you can effectively do that), then our best response in these situations is one that focuses on inviting the grieving person to share their experience.
Other things we can do include offering people faith that they are doing a really great job and that you have faith in their judgment while they manage a difficult situation, because scary change and grief can make us feel very insecure (and only do this if you actually know what this person is dealing with, or else it sounds like a platitude). You can also just say "I'm sorry" if the person is clearly distraught by their situation. But this is only helpful when you actually know how someone is managing their situation. Saying to someone you barely know or whose struggle you barely understand that they are "so brave," for example, feels less supportive and more like an effort to end the conversation with a platitude that doesn't invite someone to share how they are actually doing.
MD: How do we become experts at tuning into those subtle cries for help?
KC: Cries for help are often to be heard in silence. If we are close to someone and we are not hearing much about their difficult situation, or they are not asking us to join them in some difficult appointments or processes, then we actually can be a little forceful (not overbearing) and say, I am free tomorrow; can I join you on your medical appointment? without expecting someone to have asked you to do that in the first place.
In our times of conversation and listening, if you are comfortable with a person and have some kind of relationship or trust, you can ask up two times in a couple of different ways how someone is doing with their situation. They may not answer truthfully the first time because they don't know if you really want to know. We have some examples of tactics for asking this question that facilitates conversation without being overbearing. And if a person declines to talk about it a second time, that's okay. They likely just don't want to talk about it.
MD: How can we help others when we don't even feel like we have our own life together?
KC: Trusting that our small gestures, even done just one time, can really make a difference. And to consider the gesture that you offer in the context of A) what you like to give (because that makes it not only more manageable but actually joyful to do) and B) what you have time and bandwidth to give (because that makes it more likely to happen).
MD: Knowing when to listen and what to say starts with…
KC: 1. Making sure it's a good time to talk because you don't want to ask someone how they are doing when you are rushing to some place or when you are not in a private.
2. Focus on your affection for a person, if you have it. People need to feel admired and loved when they are feeling at their lowest.
3. If you are regularly in conversation with the person who is experiencing a difficult situation, don't be afraid to talk about your life. People don't normally want their difficulty to be the only topic of conversation; they still want to be the same person you always knew, and that means talking about the things that you always did.
MD: Sometimes despite reaching out and doing all the above, some people just need space. What do we do in this instance? And what is the appropriate length of time to leave them before reaching out again?
KC: When people need space, sometimes that means they want to see you but just don't want to talk about, in which case you can offer to do something entertaining, like a movie, or something mindless (some reality TV). And sometimes they just need to be in a ball and cry for a while. That's totally normal. And if you are concerned, you can reach out every few weeks to check in. If they are a good friend, I would check in every day by text and say no need to text back. If you are feeling alarmed, I would invite a larger circle of people in to strategize.
MD: What are some of the things we should never say to someone who's hurting or in times of loss and transition?
KC: Pretty much anything that compares your situation to how it could have been worse, or how it was meant to be is really unhelpful. Because this kind of statement implies that you aren't allowed to grieve for your friend.
MD: What can we do to make up for it after we've realized we said the wrong thing and don't want to make it worse?
KC: Say, I'm sorry. I was an ass. I didn't know what to say. Your brave apology might just accomplish even more than whatever it is you wished you had said in that moment—which is connection and vulnerability.
If you want to learn more about how to care for a friend who's hurting or going through a rough time, pick up a copy of Crowe's new book below.