Tough stuff is an unavoidable part of life. Cancer, divorce, death, health crises…you name it. Unexpected, really difficult stuff happens to our friends. It feels so helpless to sit on the sidelines. We often search for something comforting and encouraging to say, desperately trying to make our friends feel better. Today, I’m here to share five things not to say to someone who is going through a hard time.
It will be ok. It’s a nice thought and a deep hope. But we don’t know this. We can’t see into the future to know that everything is going to turn out okay. Hearing your parent has Alzheimer’s is terrifying. Cancer isn’t always curable. Filing for bankruptcy can be devastating. We may hope and pray and cross our fingers that everything will be ok, but none of us actually know that. To pretend that we know it will all work out swimmingly is to deny the real and painful outcomes our friends fear. So while we desperately want it to be ok, we don’t know that.
Everything happens for a reason. This is probably the most common statement to come out of people’s mouths when tough stuff arises, and it’s painful to hear. I think humans want to believe this statement, as it gives a sense of order and fairness to our lives. What reason could there be for losing a child; what reason could there be for having your marriage crumble? And while it may be true that we can learn something from even the most painful of experiences, this is not the same as saying there is a reason for everything.
I know how you feel. No matter how deeply we feel, no matter how much empathy we have, we cannot ever truly know how a friend facing a hard time is feeling. Their feelings are uniquely theirs, shaped by their experiences, personality, beliefs, and background. I encourage you to use your empathy muscles to imagine how they feel. Try to be curious about their experience and get as close to standing in their shoes as possible. Even if you’ve been through a similar situation, it’s not the same. Each of our experiences and feelings are uniquely ours.
I have a friend/aunt/coworker who went through this. This is probably true, as so many of us know brave and courageous people who have faced all sorts of tough stuff. In a time where uncertainty abounds, it’s natural to want to provide more information to a friend going through a hard time, telling a personal story to offer more data or comfort. However, this personal story telling often has the opposite impact. It can make the friend currently struggling feel even more inundated and lost in the shuffle of suffering. My rule of thumb? If a friend asks whether we know anyone who has faced similar tough stuff, feel free to share, but if not, kindly refrain.
Time heals all wounds. As someone who considers themselves an “expert” of sorts in helping people heal, let me tell you right now that I do not believe this statement. It sounds lovely, and I wish it were true, but it’s not. Time plus emotional work can help some wounds heal, but certaintly not all the way. This phrase is often heard by our friend as, “Give it enough time, and you’ll be fine. You’ll move on and go back normal.” This phrase is particularly difficult to hear when it comes to grief and loss, as most people aren’t ready to move on or create a new normal.
It’s amazing how quickly these one liners can roll off our tongues. They are usually built on a desire to be helpful and comforting. They’re also rooted in a desire to minimize our own discomfort of watching someone we care about go through a hard time.
It can be impossible to know what to say when a friend is struggling, but we can start with NOT saying some things.