Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Lost For Words? 12 Suggestions For What to Say (And Not Say) to a Friend Who Is Bereaved or Dealing with a Trauma

The three of them, met up on a glistening Spring day. They picnicked under blossom-covered branches with a gaggle of families. Their children danced in and out of their vision, as they caught up on the 8 months since they'd last seen each other.

They discussed jobs and childcare, picky eaters and their children's schools.

Dafna kept an eye on her three young kids as the conversation continued. Lindsay a pediatrician and Jack an accountant, avoided the one topic that hung heavily between the three of them:- 

Dafna's husband.

He had died 5 months earlier from a brain tumor.

Afterwards, Dafna would tell me, that  it was incomprehensible to her, that Lindsay and Jack had said nothing to her on the subject.

Not a word.

Not an 'I'm sorry.' 'How are you doing?' or 'How are the children coping?'

She was flabbergasted that a family doctor didn't seem to know that it was important to say something. 


Anything to acknowledge that since they'd last seen each other, Dafna's world and that of her children had been turned upside down.

I think we've all been there, in that no-man's land, where we don't know whether to bring up a tough subject with someone we know, but are not very close friends with…...

We know they are going through divorce or have a teen who has been diagnosed with a debilitating chronic illness. 

We hear about a young mother with breast cancer whose child is in our son's class, or a church member who has had a serious car accident. 

Our neighbor is diagnosed with severe depression. 

We are told about a baby born with a complex heart condition, a toddler diagnosed with autism or a spouse who has lost their job after 25 years with the same company.

We hesitate to ask about something so private, raw and out of our experience.

We worry about saying the wrong thing.

Will we ask a question that is prying or too personal, or write a note that may hit the wrong key?

If we do decide to offer our thoughts, how do we find the right words and the right moment?

Quite frankly, our fears often stop us. 

Facing their grief, their despair, their uncertainty or their shock, particularly if the situation is something we can relate to, seems too difficult for us.

But here's the thing. If you are the person who is experiencing this challenging situation. This is your world. You can't escape it, turn it off or walk away.

You have to wake up every morning and find a way to get through the day. It can be a very frightening, lonely, painful journey. You learn who you can rely on and who disappears. Who has compassion and who can't deal with the pain. 

It's black and white, when you are the one in the middle of trauma.

I know that there have been times when I have grappled with what and if to say something. 

I've found that asking someone who's a very close friend with the person I want to contact, for some advice, has been very helpful.

When friends get bad news, there are no answers. We cannot solve the problems or make them go away. Nor are we expected to. 

But I believe we should always acknowledge the situation if we are more than passing acquaintances.

Once you have taken that step, seeing each other again becomes easier for both of you.

So, what should you do to bring comfort, if you hear someone is dealing with a challenge?

Here are 12 suggestions for what to say and what to avoid.


1. The worst thing you can do, is say or do nothing. If you are in doubt, say something. Do not ignore your gut. Do not avoid them in the grocery store or cross the road rather than talk to them.

2. Do not describe your own experiences or tell the story of someone else you know. This is not about you.

3.Do not ask deeply personal questions, or comment on how things might have been different, such as:
 "How long do you have to live?"
 "Did you go to marriage counseling?"
 "Well I had a miscarriage too, but luckily I had children to go   back to."
"You don't look sick."
 "Life goes on."
 "Are you sure it's spread?"
 "Why didn't you leave him sooner?"

4. Silver linings only comfort you. Not the recipient. Do not use them: "Well at least you know you can have children." " Well I'm glad he's not in pain anymore."

5. Do not offer solutions, alternative treatments, names of specialists or be dismissive with a phrase such as "It could be worse."

6. Do not say "If you need me you know you can call any time." People in crisis do not have any time. They are emotionally exhausted from getting through each day, responding to each challenge and juggling many responsibilities.


7. Speak from your heart. "I was so sorry to hear you are unwell."  

You cannot make the situation better. That is not your job. 

It is your acknowledgement of the situation and your presence that is most important. The words may be trite and for some "I'm sorry," does not work at all. But if you are sorry that they are going through this ordeal, I think most people will be comforted by this response.

8. It's ok to say "I don't know what to say. I have no words. I'm here to support you and I am thinking about you."

9. Look the person in the eye. Acknowledge that you know what has happened and ask how they are. Then stop and really listen to the answer. Validate their feelings, but do not offer solutions.

10. Offer practical help and to do specific tasks: carpool, meals,playdates, grocery shopping. Find out if there is someone coordinating a list of support. You can create one easily using the on-line tool Lotsa Helping Hands .

11. Keep in touch. Depending on the circumstances, offer to come over with a Starbucks, a hug and a listening ear and stay a little while.

Other options: - deliver a bunch of flowers, balloons, a bowl of soup. Cut up fruit or invite them over and make them scrambled eggs for lunch and listen.

Send a card, an email or a text, if it's difficult to speak to them.

12. Laughter has its place, as does talking about other things. Offer your compassionate words the first time you meet and then let your friend lead the conversation, in the direction she chooses.

What has been most comforting for you to hear, when you have been dealing with a tough situation?

What have you said that has been helpful in bringing comfort to others? Please share your thoughts and suggestions below.

Love to you all

(All names have been changed to preserve confidentiality.)

You may also find  these posts comforting: 

Desperate to Help Your Friend in Crisis? First Steps to Bringing Comfort.

You Are Not Alone: Finding Support When Life Gets Tough.

Getting Out of Bed. 5 Ideas to Help When It's Hard to Face the Day

6 Ways to Build Certainty in an Uncertain World

P.S. If these posts bring you comfort, you can receive new ones every week to your in-box.

It's easy!

1. Enter your email address below and click SUBSCRIBE. 
2. Copy the jumping alphabet. 
3. Look for a confirmation email in your email in-box and click on the link in the message.  

Please check your spam, if you don't see a confirmation email immediately. 

Now you'll receive new posts as they are published!  

See you soon!

Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner


  1. Don't say "what can I do to help?" This is like giving the sufferer an assignment! Now they have to think of something to ask of you..

    1. Good point. Offering specifics helps you both. You offer what you are able to and the recipient has choices rather than having to come up with something to appease the person who has asked. Thank you!

  2. Amazing advice. It can feel awkward but saying nothing is even worse because the unspoken is still present in the room, in the conversation and in the relationship.

    Your second point is so hard for many people too. When you don't know what to say, it's tempting to try to create comfort from common ground. Thank you for the gentle reminder with these powerful do's and do nots.

    You are amazing, Gilly for truly helping so many of us bring comfort to others.


    1. Thank you Alli.

      I think you make such an important point about #2. " It's tempting to try to create comfort from common ground." I know I have certainly done that. We are desperately trying to relate and offer something tangible. However much like #4 Silver linings, this common ground is comforting to us because it's our 'ground' not theirs. And even if there has been a good outcome to your story,that is not where they are in their journey. It's a whole different matter if they ask if you know of a similar situation…..

      We're all on a learning curve with these situations and each one is unique. Authenticity and empathy like yours, is the biggest gift we can offer.

      I always appreciate your input Alli!


  3. Great advice Gilly. Thank you so much for sharing. I struggle enough with talking with friends in good times let alone when they are experiencing times of grief or trauma. These suggestions are great to help others successfully "walk with" their friends through such trying times. Thanks again.

    1. I'm glad they're helpful Michael. I think many people struggle with what to say at milestone moments of all kinds. You phrase "walk with" your friends is perfect. That's what we need to do in good and bad times. Celebrate the sunshine and hold up an umbrella in the rain. Walking, even in silence, means you are being present. That's the most important thing you do -be there side by side…..Thank you very much for commenting. Gilly

  4. What an insightful, informative post, Gilly!! Boy, was I relieved to see #7, 8, and 9! It has taken me so long to learn to be honest and tell the person if I have no words. I have said #6 often, and must change that. I also love your ideas for actively helping someone who has had a trauma. I can never think of what to do. Thank you for a wonderful article! I hope things are going well for you and your family.

  5. Marie, I'm glad it's helpful. We've all had those moments where we don't know what to say or offer, or something comes out our mouth ,we wish we hadn't said at all. Being somewhat prepared can reduce our anxiety and increase the chance of us offering words that bring comfort. Today's a good day! Thanks for your warm wishes. Gillyx

  6. This is truly a valuable post. When my Dad died unexpectedly (56), my mum and I were at first shocked, and then would laugh about number 2 above, how people would tell us of a friend's brother's uncle's wife who'd just had a . We just didn't have the emotional space to process. I think one of the things we really valued was friends who came and helped practically, without intruding - coming to help clear the house (as we had to move as he was a vicar, and the widow has to leave the house within 3 months as it belongs to the church), making food, giving us lifts. I hope that many people read these words and are helped to bring comfort to others with them.

    1. Wow. Losing your Dad and your family home was a lot for for you and your Mum to deal with,in a short space of time. I am glad you could laugh (eventually) at no. 2. and had people who could offer you specific, sensitive, practical support. Thank you for sharing your story and for explaining what did and didn't comfort you at the time. We always remember the people who were able to help us at critical moments. Many thanks for visiting Brainstorm. Gillyx

  7. Congratulations on winning the prize for this post - well deserved. xxx

    1. Thank you so much Rachel! You were my first blogging mentor and cheerleader and I will always appreciate that!