We’ve all been there. We’ve just confided that our heart is broken. We’ve laid our souls out on the corner café table for our friend to see. And our friend, our trusted confidant, says something so thoughtless we are stunned. Did she really just say that?
Or, (possibly worse) we’ve also been on the other side of these conversations. A friend tells us something personal, painful and maybe even a little uncomfortable. She confides in us, sharing her hurt, her struggles, her very soul. And then … we’re supposed to know how to respond!
What can we say when our workout partner confides that her husband is having an affair? Our neighbor says her daughter has cancer? Or our coworker shares that her sister just died? Finding your foot in your mouth is awkward at any time, but when a friend is in tears, it’s especially uncomfortable.
During a difficult time in my own life, I noticed how some friends had a gift for saying just the right thing, while others—with perfectly good intentions—blurted out things that left me speechless. Over the years, I’ve accumulated enough uncomfortable life situations to keep local therapists in business for decades.
Here are a few things NOT to say when your friend is in a life crisis, along with suggestions for kind words that work in almost every situation.
1. “I know exactly how you feel! Let me tell you about the time … “
We all need to know we are not alone. But while it can be a good thing for your friend to know you’ve gone through something similar, claiming to know just how your friend feels and shifting the spotlight to you can minimize her personal experience. Her situation is as unique as she is. After really listening, letting your friend know you’ve been through something similar can be comforting. But keep your personal stories to a minimum. Instead of shifting the focus to you, try saying, “I’m here for you.”
2. “This tragedy is for the best!”
There are many variations on this theme. They include telling your friend her ex was always a jerk and she’ll be better off without him, that her deceased loved one is happy now and that the swarm of sharks that ate her beloved labradoodle was actually a blessing in disguise. Remember the timeless scriptural advice to “mourn with those that mourn,” and rather than immediately trying to cheer up a friend who’s facing a tragedy, sit down and cry with her. Go through a box of tissues together and let her talk. The words “I’m sorry. This is really hard,” are almost always welcome at times like these.
3. “Let me know if there is anything I can do to help!”
This is possibly the most well-intentioned and simultaneously useless phrase ever uttered by good friends. We want to help. Our hearts are breaking. But we have no idea what to do. Instead of placing the burden of thinking of ways to help on your friend, take a moment to consider a few options and make an offer. There are some common things good friends can do to be truly helpful. “Do you need me to pick up a few groceries? Could I come by and do a little house cleaning in the morning? Would you like me to pick up the kids from school?” If you can see that your friend is feeling overwhelmed but is resistant to accepting help, try saying, “Which would be most helpful—if I grab a few groceries, do the laundry, or take the kids to the park? Your pick.”
4. Nothing at all
Of everything we can say, saying nothing can sometimes be the most painful response. When hard things happen, it’s easy to think, “I don’t know what to say. I’ll just wait until she’s feeling better.” Sometimes people don’t want to talk about what’s happening, but sometimes they do. How can we know if they need space or a friend to listen? My mom worked for years as the head of a local women’s organization and she shared with me a tip she learned for knowing when it’s okay—and when it’s not okay—to talk to someone about a difficult life situation. If they bring it up, even in passing, it’s a topic they are open to, maybe even hoping to discuss. If your friend mentions her divorce, her child in the ICU or the flood that wiped out her home, she’s open to talking about it. Ask her how she’s holding up, and she will be grateful to have a listening ear.
These few simple phrases—
“I’m here for you;”
“I’m so sorry. This is really hard;”
and, “Which would be most helpful?”—
combined with a listening ear allow us to “mourn with those that mourn” and solidify friendships during life’s hardest times.