When a friend experiences a loss, whether it be a death in the family, a divorce, separation, miscarriage, or other staggering event, it can often be difficult to know what to say. The tendency to simply repeat the same platitudes ("You'll be in my thoughts; I'm so sorry") is understandably strong, but can sometimes lead you down the wrong path. Take a look at the Facebook comments of anyone who has posted something sad, and they read like a broken record. Want to know what's not particularly helpful? Read on for some common phrases that surprisingly do more harm than good.
"I know how you feel." Honestly, you can't, you don't, and you won't. Even if you think you've had an extremely similar experience and are just trying to offer your sympathy, there's no way for you to truly be in their shoes, as all of our different psychological characteristics and the variables inherent in any given situations and relationships can add up to extremely different situations. Certainly, you can empathize and talk about how you relate to her. But don't pretend you can get insider her head: you'll come off like a know-it-all who wants to make her loss an excuse to talk about yourself.
"This is God's plan." This can be confusing, unhelpful, and at worst, enraging ("Why do you believe that God wants me to experience Hell on Earth?") Certainly, if you share your friend's faith, nudging them toward a reminder of their beliefs can help bring peace. But declaring that you have their life's fate all figured out can be downright insensitive, especially if they are understandably questioning their own beliefs when life doesn't seem to make sense anymore.
"If you need anything, give me a call." Very common and no doubt well-meaning, this is the classic sign-off of sympathetic friends everywhere. But it's quite vague, and puts the burden of effort on the grieving person. How realistic is it that someone in the throes of grieving is actually going to get on the phone to you and ask for something specific? If that person is generally uncomfortable with asking for help, that becomes even less likely. "Let me know if there's anything I can do" has become almost laughable in its triteness, even if you meant it. Instead, get specific and take away their work: Ask when you can bring by some takeout. Tell her you want to do some laundry for her and all she has to do is pick a time this weekend. When someone is emotionally paralyzed by a loss, it's often the simple tasks of everyday life that become overwhelming: and saying you are going to come by with some groceries this Thursday is going to go a lot farther than some vague and passive offer of helping.
"This, too, shall pass." Though a good phrase to cross-stitch into a throw pillow, or reminding your own self when you're sitting through a particularly bad episode of America's Got Talent, this is rarely useful coming from someone else, especially in the throes of a loss. Being told that they'll feel better soon seems like wishful thinking, and may come across of totally invalidating of their current pain. They need more time, and to come to this conclusion on their own.
Keeping these tips in mind will help maximize your ability to help your friend. And remember, perhaps the worst thing to say is nothing at all: many people in the throes of grief report that the disappearance of otherwise well-meaning friends-- who perhaps just were uncomfortable or attempting to say the perfect thing-- was the most painful thing of all.
Adapted from The Friendship Fix: The Complete Guide to Choosing, Losing, and Keeping Up With your Friends.
Andrea Bonior, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist, professor, and media commentator.