Debbie was 22 when her parents died in an auto accident. "The first months after their death were terrible for me," she recalls. "Whenever I tried to talk about it with my friends, they would tell me about a sale at the mall or offer to take me out to the movies. I know they wanted to help, but what I really needed was a shoulder to cry on."
When Brad's fiancé, Stephanie, called off their wedding, he was crushed. "My friends told me things like they thought Stephanie was hard to get along with and that they never really liked her," Brad explains. "They may have been trying to stick up for me, but their words only made me feel worse. I still think Stephanie is a nice person, even though things didn't work out for us."
After Ramona's mastectomy, her friends came to the hospital to cheer her up. "When I told them I was worried the cancer would spread, they acted as if I had nothing to be concerned about," Ramona says. "They made comments like, 'Don't worry! You'll probably live to be 100,' and 'Plenty of people have had breast cancer and survived.' They shrugged off anything I said about my illness and made me feel guilty for being scared."
Like Debbie, Brad and Ramona, we all have our bad times. A serious illness, a tragic automobile accident, the death of a family member, marital problems, financial difficulties, the loss of a job—all are part of life.
During difficulties our friends need our support more than ever. But, although many automatically want to help, successfully comforting someone takes some thought. Anyone can blurt out remarks that hurt people.
Knowing what to say to a hurt friend isn't easy. Should we try to make our friend laugh, or should we bring up our own problems? Should we encourage him (or her) to talk about the situation, or should we try to pass along some good advice? In some situations we may feel so awkward that we avoid a suffering friend altogether rather than risk saying the wrong thing.
Although each crisis is different, we can respond tactfully, sincerely and appropriately. Here are some suggestions for helping a wounded friend.
Preparing to listen: Let her talk it out.
When Kathy came to work Monday morning, two of her friends greeted her at her desk.
"How was your weekend?" they asked.
Kathy burst into tears.
"My husband and I had a huge fight Friday night, and he hasn't spoken to me all weekend!"
Her friends hadn't expected such an honest reply to their question.
"It can't be that bad," one friend told her. "There are doughnuts in the kitchen. Why don't you go get one?"
"No thanks," Kathy sighed. "I guess I'd better get to work."
One of the biggest mistakes you can make when a friend starts telling you bad news is to deny he said anything out of the ordinary. Let your friend talk about the problem.
Changing the subject, making jokes and coming up with why the problem isn't a problem convey to your friend there's something wrong with feeling sad or expressing sorrow. "Don't worry," "Get tough" and "You're blowing this out of proportion" minimize the tragedy and make your friend think he's at fault.
Many people are so uncomfortable because they don't know what to do or say that they make themselves more comfortable by shutting out the other person's suffering. Rather than encouraging her to "be tough" and not to cry, your friend needs to be able to express her feelings.
If your friend says something negative after a traumatic experience, try not to let it make you nervous. Remember that he is in pain and needs to be able to talk, and at that moment that is exactly what he feels.
This doesn't mean you should never bring up encouraging scriptures, such as Romans 8:28 Romans 8:28And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.
American King James Version×, but don't do it without first acknowledging that your friend is going through a difficult situation.
Knowing what to listen for: Listen to understand.
The best response you can give a hurting friend is to listen in a nonjudgmental way and try to understand why she feels the way she does. In general, sufferers need to know the listener recognizes they feel sad and will support them in their sadness.
Calmly accept your friend's situation for what it is and try not to deny what is happening. Responses such as "Tell me more about it," "You've been through a lot" and "I'm sorry to hear the bad news" communicate concern and acceptance.
Let your friend do most of the talking. Remember, you're not there to tell your story. When your friend is talking, give him your full attention. Watch your body language. Don't look at your watch, let your eyes wander or nod impatiently. Don't try to finish your friend's sentences because you think you know what he's going to say. You could be wrong.
Choosing carefully: Don't say, "I know just how you feel."
After Carol's baby died, her friends tried to comfort her. Unsure of what to say, her friend Jennifer told her, "I know it's terrible to lose a baby."
"I felt like saying, 'How would you know?' " Carol says. "Jennifer is single and busy with her career. My baby is dead. How could Jennifer possibly know what I am going through?"
Be careful not to assume you know what your friend is feeling. Remind yourself that, even if you have been through a similar experience, it isn't the particular situation your friend is going through.
Making room: Respect the other person's privacy.
Realize that some hurting people may not be ready to talk about their problem or may open up to only one or two of their closest friends. Let the sufferer call the shots. If you know someone is going through a serious trial, don't jump on him the second you see him and start prying. First, discern if it's a good time to talk, and don't take it personally if the sufferer does not feel comfortable opening up to you.
Asking, "How are you doing?" or mentioning that, "if you ever need to talk, I'm available," lets the sufferer know you are willing to listen if the need arises. Otherwise, you may appear pushy or like a busybody.
Don't be offended if the family of someone who is seriously ill limits the number of visitors for a while. You can still send a card or note with a message reminding the family members that they are in your thoughts and prayers.
Some people go to the extreme of respecting someone's privacy by being afraid to intrude and backing off completely. Don't assume a grieving friend doesn't want to be bothered without first giving him a chance to talk. If your friend doesn't feel like talking, she'll let you know. If she would like to talk, she'll appreciate your being perceptive enough to notice.
Being cautiously positive: Offer realistic encouragement.
Although you want things to instantly be better for your friend, avoid making statements you don't know are true as a way of trying to be positive.
A few weeks after Kevin's skiing accident, a friend told him, "You'll be skiing again in no time."
I wanted to ask, 'Really? How can you be so sure?'" Kevin says. "My doctors told me they doubted I would ever be able to ski again. But my friend seemed to imply I could lead the same life I had before the accident if I really wanted to."
Learn to accept your friend's newfound limitations after an accident or major illness. You don't have to stretch the truth to encourage. When you visit an ailing friend in the hospital, recognize that the situation does not have to be rosy or anywhere near perfect for you to be positive and upbeat. Focus on what you know is true: that you care about your friend and are pulling for him.
To say, "I'll pray for you," and mean it is enormously encouraging and will bind you to him.
Encouraging words: Don't give unsolicited advice.
What to do to solve your friend's problem may seem obvious to you, but resist the temptation to give unsolicited advice. The consequence of giving advice may be that we cut off communication. We'd like to think that, if we can distract the friend by coming up with some brilliant advice, she'll stop crying or thinking of her situation. Often, however, it just doesn't work that way.
Unsolicited advice can put the sufferer in an awkward position if he doesn't take your suggestion. When Mike lost his job, he received much unwanted advice.
"Usually I didn't think other people's suggestions would work," Mike relates. "I felt like I had to defend the way I was handling my situation and didn't feel encouraged at all. Instead, I'd think to myself, Whew, I made it through another interrogation."
If a friend asks for advice, it can be all right to give it if your advice comes in the form of several alternatives, rather than one specific course of action you think he should take. Rather than say, "I think this is what you should do," say, "This is what I've done," or "This is what works for me." Let your friend make the final decision about what to do.
Taking it slowly: Be patient.
Don't get impatient with your friend if she is not over her tragedy, even though you and others may think she should be. Grieving takes times. Depending on the severity of the situation, it can take months or years to begin to recover from some tragedies. Coming to terms with the death of a marriage partner can take several years.
Fight the tendency to tell yourself things like, "If she won't help herself, there's nothing I can do." It's important to be there for our friends during their low periods, regardless of how we think they are handling their situations.
My friend, Kate, told me how she felt during the five years her husband, Randy, was battling chronic-fatigue syndrome and couldn't work:
"Although I know people meant well, they would ask me things like, 'When is that guy of yours going to get well and start working again?' and 'Why doesn't Randy try a less-demanding job so he can at least get out of the house?' They made us feel like there was something wrong with us. Some of our friends became uncomfortable around us and pulled away. When people avoided us, we started feeling as though we were going through our trial alone."
We shouldn't give up on people during their low periods. Remember that they need us, just as we need them when we are in times of despair.
Nobody's perfect: Know your limits.
Times may come when it's just too hard to watch your friend suffer. You, too, will have difficult days during which you may not be able to listen at length. Reassure your friend that you want to help, but ask if he could wait to talk about his problem later, when you're better able to handle it.
Know when your friend needs more help than you can give. If his problem is getting worse or is starting to affect his relationship with others or he's no longer comforted by your listening to him, encourage him to seek the help of an appropriate counselor.
You may make a few mistakes along the way. No one can be expected to know what to say or how to act in every situation. Remind yourself that people involved in serious trials need loving support.
It's better to say something less than ideal while at your friend's side rather than avoid him because you don't know what to say. What matters most is to have each other's encouragement and not have to face difficult times alone.
When you come face to face with another person's tragedy or problem, be ready to be of help by making use of these points. We can all help those who are hurting.