What Not to Do When a Loved One Is Hurting
These 4 tips can help you be supportive.
Posted May 22, 2018
“It’s all for the best.” “He is in a better place.” “You will get over this.” “Time heals everything.” “You weren’t meant to be together.” “Everyone passes; it was her time.”
These are all well-meaning, and in most cases caring, things that people tend to say when someone they know or love is hurting. It’s painful for most people to watch a person they care about suffer and yet feel unable to do anything about it. Most people are uncomfortable with the pain of others’ suffering: They just don’t know what to do and how to help. Instead of just sitting with the pain, they offer condolences like those listed above.
The problem is that when someone is hurting, these types of phrases can make things more difficult. The person thinks you really don’t understand what they are dealing with, or the depth of their pain. A recent widow does not think her spouse is “in a better place” when he is no longer there to cheer for their young son at a ball game. A young man who has been told his girlfriend no longer loves him doesn’t care about “time healing” anything; he is in raw pain, today, right now. A woman who finds out her husband has cheated won’t be consoled in the moment by “It wasn’t meant to be."
Later, when the wounds have subsided a bit, or even healed, the person in pain might use these statements themselves to confirm they are over it: “Life goes on.” “I am doing the best I can.” “I can’t mourn forever.” However, it is up to the person who is hurting, and no one else, to get to a place where they can think and feel differently.
In the meantime, as a caring person who wants to help and be supportive, but doesn't quite know how to do so, there are a few things you can say and do to show the other person you are there for them.
1. Recognize that someone else’s hurt triggers negative responses and reactions inside you.
Many times, it isn’t that you hurt for the other person so much as you are feeling the pain, or thinking about how hard it is, or relating it to a situation you’ve experienced in the past. It’s your own negative or sad feelings that are surfacing, and the natural response can be to do something to shut them down. Respect that you will have a reaction, and it’s okay, but work to separate your experiences from the person you are consoling. Be intentional about putting the focus on them.
2. Understand that grief and mourning and the experience of loss are not logical.
Yes, it is absolutely true that everyone dies, that some things are not meant to be, that time helps with the healing process, and that things pass in life. These are all factual, accurate statements, but they don’t matter to someone in a high-intensity emotional state. Instead of leading with logic, say something more like, “I can hear how painful this is. I honestly can’t imagine what you are going through.” Being empathic and working to connect to the person’s emotional state is the kindest thing you can do in the moment.
Just listen. If the person doesn’t want to talk, be in silence with them. Let them know that your spirit is connecting with theirs, and that you are there. Do your best to refrain from making the situation about you — “I know how you feel; I remember when my mom passed away…” As human beings, it is common to try to empathize by sharing a similar experience, but when the other person is deeply in pain, your experience actually takes the focus off them and puts it on you. They might even begin to think they should be supporting you.
4. Stay connected.
Continue to check in on the person in different ways from time to time: a simple text saying “I’m thinking of you” or a call — even if you end up just leaving a message — to say “If there is anything you need, I’m here.” If you can afford to do so, send something meaningful to the person. If you can’t, send a poem or write a note about something you like and respect about your friend. It can be hard to be around someone who is in a sad state, so make a commitment not to abandon them. Don’t give up. They need your support and may not know how to ask for it.
You are a kind person and a good friend to want to help. Stay in awareness of your own motivations and responses, and work to put the focus on the other person and what they really need.