What do I say to the person who is suffering?

First off, show up.

Don’t ask permission, just show up.

It’s always difficult to know just what to say when a friend or loved one tells you of a personal tragedy. The usual responses of “I’m so sorry,” or “what can I do?” are often not helpful. Both of these, though usually coming from a place of true compassion and intent to help, often make matters worse for the sufferer.

If someone tells me they are sorry that I lost a loved one there’s little I can do with that. “Thanks for being sorry, but it wasn’t your fault,” followed by the feeling that I, the sufferer, now has to console the consoler. The phrase can also come across with a sense of pity, and nobody likes to be pitied.

The latter—“What can I do?”—throws the burden back on the sufferer. Sort of like, “I know you’re suffering, but you really need to figure out how I can help you.” No sufferer wants to (a) have the extra burden of matching tasks with personalities, and (b) play the annoying head-game of deciding whether or not the would-be helper really intends to help, and what is too much to ask.

Instead, just show up. What the struggling person really needs is the reassurance that others are there for them, and there is no better proof than to, well… to actually be there. Too often friends and family will simply abandon the sufferer to their fate, rationalizing that they probably need space during their time of mourning. This is very rarely the case. The vast majority of suffers complain that they feel cut off the very people they most need during hardship.

Don’t ask if you can visit. Just show up.

Don’t ask what they need. Bring what you would want if your roles were switched. Even if what you bring doesn’t fit the bill, it is genuine proof that you care. Who cares if they would’ve taken soy instead of milk in their latte, just bring them the latte.

Don’t tell them you’re sorry, unless you actually did something to contribute to the pain. If their pain sounds horrendous, tell them it sounds horrendous. If the suffering sounds unbearable, tell them it sounds unbearable. If you can’t fathom their pain, tell them so.

And no matter what else you may or may no say, please, I beg you, please do not tell them how they should feel about their loss; do not create for them an artificial timeline for when they should be over it; do not tell them “Everything is going to be okay,” unless you are absolutely certain that it will be. All of these simply add to their suffering the extra burden of how you expect them to perform their suffering.

Just be there.


4 thoughts on “What do I say to the person who is suffering?

  1. Yes, give practical assistance and honesty. They don’t go out of date; they are timeless.

    I’ve been knocking around awhile, and I remember a few decades ago, managing grief was all about the five stages of grief. Counsellors and palliative care nurses would try to press grievers into living that model. Then along came the closure model, it was all about finding closure and moving on. Nowadays we are in the loss and restitution model. Psychology is just a fashion parade of trendy ideas.

  2. This post has me sobbing. You put to words what I have not been able to. We lost our first child 6 years ago and in so many ways feel the same way we did immediately after… alone, with no help and almost no idea of what we really need. It has been exhausting trying to figure out what we can ask for or expect from the different people in our life. It’s just so overwhelming.
    I’m not gonna sob here all over your comments, just want to let you know how incredibly validated I feel right now reading this. It also offers clarity for when I want to help others. Thank you so much, I will be sharing this post.

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