Unless your interpersonal skills are unusually sharp, at some point you’ve probably found yourself at a loss for the right words when reaching out to someone you care about who is going through a traumatic life event. We’ve all been there: A close friend, co-worker or acquaintance has just lost someone important or has been diagnosed with cancer or another illness, potentially terminal. You want to express support, but somehow phrases like “I’m sorry” and “Let me know how I can help” feel empty. After the initial condolences, you aren’t sure whether to bring it up again, so you don’t, though you suspect the person’s pain continues.
David K. Wellisch, a psychologist with the UCLA Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, says our culture is partly to blame for these struggles. Wellisch notes that when it comes to people dealing with a serious illness such as cancer, the common response in the U.S. and many other parts of the world has been to avoid bringing it up for fear of having this lead to deeper anxiety and depression. But beginning in the 1970s and accelerating in the 1980s, Wellisch and others in the nascent field of psycho-oncology learned through research that everyone, children included, benefits from confronting rather than avoiding feelings about impending and actual loss associated with cancer. Wellisch says these findings can be generalized to any type of traumatic life experience. “People need support,” he says. “When no one is talking to them about what they’re going through, they’re being excluded from that circle of support.”
It’s never easy to know what to say, or how to say it — and often, Wellisch notes, those who are suffering are reluctant to open up to others for fear of burdening them with their troubles. Of course, most of us want to be there for the people we care about, even if we’re not sure how to go about it. “Friendship is about familiarity and comfort, whether it’s material or emotional,” Wellisch says. For those who struggle with how to best provide comfort during difficult times, he offers these thoughts:
You may not know what words are appropriate, but the reality is that almost anything you say, if heartfelt, will be better than nothing at all. “Tell your friend that you’re aware of the situation, would like to know how they’re feeling about it, and most of all, how you can help,” Wellisch suggests.
“Your friend isn’t going to shatter if the situation is discussed,” Wellisch adds. “People often assume that a traumatic situation makes someone fragile, and the truth is that personality dynamics don’t change. If the person is highly emotional, he or she will be highly emotional in such a crisis. If your friend is someone who intellectualizes, that person is likely to intellectualize in such a situation.” Whatever the response, don’t judge; simply let your friend be him- or herself.
Allow Room to Grieve
Perhaps because we feel uncomfortable with it, we can easily misinterpret crying and other expressions of intense emotionality as meaning our friend is falling apart, and that can make us feel awkward and uncomfortable. “Someone who is in crisis or has experienced a terrible loss is going to feel grief, and we shouldn’t step on it,” Wellisch says. “Loss of hope, loss of security and loss of a sense of meaning are normal reactions. Rather than trying to suppress them, or saying something like ‘Toughen up’ or ‘Move on,’ the best thing we can do is to sit with the person until these waves of grief-laden emotions pass.”
When your friend has suffered a major loss or is facing death, drawing on your shared history or reminiscing about your friend’s past can have a soothing effect. “It sends a message that your friendship has had meaning, that this person’s life has been well spent, that these events mattered,” Wellisch explains. In such cases, looking at old pictures and eliciting stories is likely to be more therapeutic than trying to change the subject.
Lend a Hand
Grief tends to sap a person of energy and motivation. Beyond offering emotional comfort, you can let your friend know that you care by offering practical assistance. But rather than merely seeing if there’s anything you can do, Wellisch recommends asking permission to step in with specifics: “How would you feel if I took your kids for a while to give you a break?” “Would it be helpful if I arranged to have your house cleaned, ran this errand for you or brought you a meal?”
Ask, Don’t Tell
On the face of it, “I know how you feel” seems like a perfectly appropriate way of expressing sympathy. But in reality, even if you’ve gone through something similar or know someone else who has, you can’t know how your friend is feeling unless you ask. “The phrase that’s important is ‘Tell me how you feel,’” Wellisch says. “It can be tempting to say ‘It’s not so bad, I had this-and-this happen and I got through it,’ but we must not inject our own meaning or measurements.”
It’s Not About Time
Because we don’t like to see anyone in pain, we may be inclined to set a date by which we expect our friend to be “over it.” In the past, conventional thought was that, for example, a year was the expected recovery time after losing a spouse. “We now understand that this is a misconception, and there is no absolute timetable to the resolution of feelings about loss,” Wellisch says. “If our friend is still grieving after more than a year, that’s not abnormal, and we shouldn’t judge. Sometimes it takes many years.”
Stay in Touch
Given that the pain can endure, it can be especially important to check in beyond the initial crisis period, when offers of condolences and comfort are likely to have waned and your friend may be feeling more alone. “Mourning is like the tides of the ocean,” Wellisch says. “The grief can drift out and the person seems OK, but then something stirs up feelings — a birthday, anniversary, holiday or other reminder — and the grief returns, sometimes with such enormous force that it can knock you down. It’s important to check in over time, even after things seem better.”