*Note: there will be footnotes.
There’s a big mistake almost everyone makes when it comes to comforting people who are going through a hard time. I’ve made it. You’ve probably made it–probably more than once–without ever meaning to or realizing it.
Here’s the scenario: you are are worried about a friend, family member, or colleague that has recently gone through/is going through something really awful. You think “I’d like to reach out and offer my support.” But then you follow that thought with “Oh, but I don’t want to stir up any bad memories for them, so I probably just shouldn’t say anything.”
First of all, I am happy to say that I have good news for you. If you’ve ever had this thought, it means that you are a kind person who is concerned with the wellbeing of others, and that you care enough to want to help and not make things harder for someone having a hard time. And that is admirable.
Unfortunately, this line of thinking often results in the opposite effect, and makes people who are already having a hard time feel even worse. Avoiding talking to a person about something that has disrupted their life in a big way–even when it’s well-intentioned and coming from a place of care–results in further isolation, loneliness, and emotional pain for the one who is suffering.**
Speaking from personal experience, when truly painful and upsetting things happened to me, I was, on some level, never not thinking about it. I have not have a single day go by recently during which I forgot that my mom died, that my friend died, or that I had a miscarriage. It’s always there, even when I’m not actively thinking about it. And when someone approaches me and brings it up with the intention of offering comfort and support, my emotional reaction is almost*** always “Oh thank goodness, I get to say all these things I’m feeling out loud and have them acknowledged, what a relief.” Never ever not once has my reaction been “What are you talking about? My mom didn’t die, she’s at home right now…wait, oh god, it’s all coming back to me…I had it all wrong, she did die…oh dear god no…why…Why?…Why did you say this!?!?! THIS HAS BROUGHT UP HORRIBLE MEMORIES FOR ME THAT I’D TUCKED AWAY LIKE A SQUIRREL HIDING NUTS FOR THE WINTER AND NOW I CAN NO LONGER ESCAPE THE AWFUL REALITY BECAUSE OF YOU!!!
Okay, so now you’re thinking that you’d like to stop falling prey to the Bad Memories Fallacy (™ pending) and start offering words support to someone that you care about who needs them. You might now be having a few different reactions to the thought of this undertaking. You might be thinking, “I am great face-to-face with folks and always know what to say!” or maybe, “Oh god I am terrified of saying the wrong thing, but I want to say something and please dear god don’t make me do it in person. Or on the phone.” So here’s a handy-dandy list of suggestions to fit a range of strengths and preferred methods of communication:
- Schedule a phone call or hang-out with the person and then say something like, “Hey, I know something’s been going on and I’m worried about you. I’d be happy to be a listening ear, or just to provide some distraction. Whatever you need in this moment.”
- Approach the person during a private or quiet moment in your workday and offer a simple, “I just wanted to say that I heard about [insert what happened] and that I’m so very sorry. You’re in my thoughts.” And if you’re feeling extra capable and fancy you can add a, “If you’d ever like to talk about it, I’d be happy to listen.”
- Send a card to their home or leave on one their desk, on their door, etc. This option has a bonus: you don’t even have to know what to say because you can buy a card that already says it for you. There are lots of sympathy cards that are really well written and great. I myself have deployed the sympathy card option on many occasions to great effect. Added bonus: cards can be kept, and re-read whenever needed (I have a stash of particularly meaningful sympathy cards that I re-read when I’m feeling blue).
- Send the person an email, Facebook message, DM on any other platform, or text. There are people who will tell you that it is inappropriate to express these kinds of things via electronic communication. Those people are wrong (and probably say things like, “Kids these days!”). Reach out with a message or text that says something like, “Hey, you’ve been in my thoughts so much lately, and I just wanted to let you know how much you mean to me and that I’m here for you if you need anything.” Getting texts like those have, at times, been a life-line when I felt like I was drowning.
- Still overwhelmed by the idea of making words of any kind to express your feelings? A small token, like some flowers, a gift certificate to a bar they like or for a luxury service, a little piece of art or poetry that made you think of them, or even a mini muffin is a fabulous offering. You can add a card that says “Thinking of you” or just has a heart drawn on it if you want. Or you can even give it anonymously! No matter what, I promise you that it will be appreciated and that you will have a positive impact on their day.****
What I’m trying to say is, no matter how you express your concern and your care and condolences, express them. It doesn’t matter if you know what to say, or if you feel awkward, or out of your depth, or afraid of making things worse. And I guarantee that you won’t be bringing up Bad Memories™ because they are not memories. They are just that person’s reality. And that person could use a little love and support. Couldn’t we all?
Until next time,
The Cry Babe
**Before I go any further, I need to put in a big caveat: not all people are the same. And I’m sure that somewhere there is someone for whom the best and most loving care and attention would be to ignore whatever has happened to them and to carry on like everything is normal. But it is my experience that these people are in the vast minority. In fact, I’ve never met them. (Which doesn’t mean that they don’t exist! It takes all kinds.)
***Yes, there are moments when having an emotional moment and crying with someone aren’t preferable. For example, I would not welcome the “Heeeeey, I’m so sorry about your miscarriage. How are you doing?” right before, say, walking on stage to present a slide deck to a thousand investors or something. It’s important to pick an appropriate time to offer condolence (or, more accurately, to avoid doing it at an inappropriate time.)
****Okay so there’s one instance in which I can’t actually promise this: if you are super creepy and/or give a gift that’s overly extravagant or otherwise inappropriate and that makes them feel uncomfortable. Giving someone a bar of chocolate or a small bouquet of hand-picked flowers with a, “You’re in my thoughts” note? Lovely. Buying them a Tiffany’s diamond necklace or a new refrigerator with a, “This reminded me of your sadness” note? Confusing and weird. If you wonder whether your gift is a good idea, jut run it by a couple other people. If they look at you with confusion and horror, get thee to a therapist immediately.