When bad things happen, choose your words carefully.
It can be tricky to know what to say to a friend or family member who’s recovering – physically and mentally – from an illness, loss or injury. You want to help, but may not be sure how to approach them. Here are a few tips from Soltana Nosrati, a therapist at Novant Health Psychiatric Associates in Huntersville.
If you have a friend dealing with something tough – a divorce, a new diagnosis, a chronic illness – it’s always good to check in and say, “I'm here for you.” Ignoring the situation or pretending you don’t know doesn’t help them or you. It’s OK to say, “I’m not sure what to say except, ‘I’m sorry you’re going through this.’”
Tailor what you say to the person. Pain, illness, death, depression, anxiety – everything is individualized the moment it becomes specific to the person. If your friend is an open person, ask questions. If the friend or acquaintance is private, it may be enough to say, “I’m sorry, and I’m here for you.” It’s important to remember: Grief needs to be acknowledged.
Don’t tell them that everything happens for a reason.
What could be the reason for someone’s pain and suffering? Saying something like, “This stinks,” is a fact, and it’s empathetic. Saying “everything happens for a reason” is not helpful to a friend. Instead, help your friend focus on their own strength.
Remind your friend they’ve gotten through tough times in the past.
Someone who’s living through a serious illness or disability can feel very weak. When your body is doing things to you that you don’t condone, it does make you feel helpless. Be the friend who says: “Remember how you got through that previous ordeal? You are stronger now because of it.”
Find the care you need and deserve.
The reality of life is: No one gets out of here without experiencing loss, illness or disability of some sort. It may happen in our final years, or it may happen much earlier in life. We all need people who are close to us to help us through those times. If you don’t focus on the good and on what you can control, you can easily spiral into depression and anxiety. Then, you've got multiple problems.
Nothing in life is the end, unless it's really the end. As long as you’re breathing, there is something you can look forward to.
Nosrati gave birth to twins. She was almost 36 when it happened, and she remembers experiencing pain like she had never experienced before. But, she said, as soon as she accepted the this is what she was dealing with – and that the pain wasn’t going to last forever – that she was able to get through it. “I just opened myself up to it,” she said. “And that helped me get through.”
Don’t make empty promises.
Don’t volunteer to cook a meal if you think you may not be able to make it happen. If you’re a particularly busy person, realistically, you may not be able to fix a meal or do a friend’s laundry. But you can let them know that you’re just a phone call or text away. When you have friends dealing with an illness, you might say: “I may not always pick up the phone to call you, but just know that if you call me, as soon as I get your message, I'll call you right back.” Open the door to an ongoing discussion.
Do something kind and unexpected.
When she had COVID, she woke up one morning and heard a motor running. Her next-door neighbor was mowing my lawn for her. He hadn’t promised to do it; he just up and did it. It was so unexpected and so appreciated.
Humor is magic. Find a way to make your friend laugh. It’ll do wonders.
Remind your friend: They are not their disease.
If you're dealing with a debilitating illness – especially one you may be dealing with for the rest of your life – it can be all-consuming. Tell your friend: You are not cancer. You are not diabetes. You are not depression. You are a person who is coping with something.
Unless you’re a doctor, don’t offer medical advice.
You may find something in an internet search that you’re sure would help your friend. Resist the urge to offer unsolicited and untested advice. Consider giving your friend a book (by a reputable source) on their condition – or a book that has nothing to do with their illness.
Don’t stop checking in.
Weeks or months after you’ve initially acknowledged a friend’s pain, check in again. It’s usually immediately after something bad happens – a death, divorce or diagnosis – that your friends rally around you. But the pain is still there months later. It’s good to remind your friend you’re still there, too.
If you inadvertently say the wrong thing, it’s OK.
We’re all human and all fallible. Don't forget that. If you say something that doesn’t sit well with your friend, you can recover from it. Don't run away. It’s OK to say, “Hey, I realized I hurt your feelings when I said such-and-such. Can we talk about it?”