When a loved one goes through something difficult it can be very hard to find the right words.
Whether it is the loss of a job, an illness, a loved one’s death, a miscarriage, or the end of a relationship, we all struggle with what to say to bring comfort to those around us. But now Joyce Marter, a psychotherapist, is going to give us her expert advice, and she wants us to know how we can be there for our friends and family in a meaningful way.
Joyce says, “A really important piece is to practice empathy, the ability to put yourself in the other person’s shoes and imagine how they might be feeling... [This means] listening… and reflecting back to them that you understand how they might be feeling.”
Let's get started:
- Losing a job
Getting laid off or fired can bring about so many worries and concerns for a loved one. Not to mention, there are emotions of embarrassment, anger, relief, and uncertainty to deal with. Keep in mind that our loved one's self-image can take a hit after losing a job because they might not feel "good enough".
Here are some helpful things to ask and say:
“What can I do to be here for you right now?”
“I’m confident you’re going to find an environment that’s right for you,”
“I believe in you."
Saying something like, “Hmm, isn't this the third boss who has fired you?” isn't quite helpful. Unasked for advice usually isn't welcomed, but if you have some ideas that could help your loved one, simply ask if you can give your recommendations. Start out with saying, “Here’s what’s worked for me" instead of, “Here’s what you should do," that way you are simply offering your experience for your loved one to learn from.
At the age of 24, Emily McDowell was diagnosed with stage 3 cancer. She was discouraged by the number of generic sympathy cards that she received from friends, and she was even more shocked by how many of her friends said nothing at all. It's probably safe to say that they couldn't find the right words. A heartfelt, "I'm so sorry" always trumps silence. That is why Emily launched her own empathy cards for people fighting illnesses. Emily believes that her cards give “better, more authentic ways to communicate about sickness and suffering."
One of Emily's cards reads:
“Please let me be the first to punch the next person who tells you everything happens for a reason.” This is a reminder that our friends who are sick aren't random victims, but instead they are people fighting the fight of their lives.
Remember, "A merry heart does good, like medicine, But a broken spirit dries the bones." –Proverbs 17:22
Having a serious illness can flip your world upside down, so giving our loved ones the chance to share their day-to-day struggles and victories shows them that we care. “We might not even be aware that our loved one is suffering unless we compassionately recognize that they're going through a big life change," Joyce shares. “When someone has a chronic illness, it affects their identity as well."
Joyce also tells us that encouraging a loved to attend a support group may not be normal, but it can be very helpful,"Support groups are really important for people with chronic illnesses, because their feelings and experiences can be normalized and validated."
Kristin Meekhof was just 33 years old when her husband was diagnosed with cancer - eight weeks later, he passed away. Kristen remembers, “My friends sat shoulder-to-shoulder with me and didn't necessarily expect anything from me but were there just to listen. What was also helpful was people who did physical things for me - my one friend came in and literally filled up my freezer [with] beautiful meals… That was more helpful than saying, ‘What do you want?'."
Kirstin goes on to say,”When things are open-ended like that, my experience is that most people can't think of something.” So, consider skipping the question, “What can I do?” and going straight to “I would love to bring over some food and household supplies later.”
When someone loses a loved one it’s always best to avoid minimizing the loss.
“We were at the funeral home, and this woman said to me - I'll never forget it - she said, ‘Honey, don't worry; you'll find someone really soon," Kristen couldn't believe her ears!
Kristin noticed that around six weeks after her husband’s funeral her support from family and friends faded away. It's so important to check on those that have lost a loved one throughout the year, especially around birthdays, anniversaries of deaths, and holidays. Don't be nervous to bring up the memory of a lost loved one either, you can never wear out a good memory or an old story. Just hearing the name of a lost loved one can help ease the pain. And when all else fails, a hug can mean more than a thousand words.
When it comes to grieving a lost loved one, there are no set timelines for when someone should "move on". “Sometimes, it's hard for us when people we love are grieving and they're not themselves,” Joyce says, “A year later, we may be feeling some frustration that they're still in a place of sadness, but there's no magic formula in terms of how long grief takes to process.”
(From her experiences, Kristin wrote a book to help other women heal, A Widow’s Guide to Healing: Gentle Support and Advice for the First 5 Years.)
Jennifer Oradat was 24 years old and 12 weeks pregnant when she suffered a miscarriage. At the time, her husband was deployed for military duty. Not only was she without her husband, but her family lived on the other side of the country, thankfully, she had a few friends close by. “The only thing I wanted from my friends was for them to sit next to me as I cried just one more time," Jennifer said. “I remember thinking that someone who’s never had a miscarriage should refrain from offering advice to a woman who is grieving the loss of her child. I didn’t need to be fixed. I needed to heal, at my own pace and in my own time.”
What so many women want is a shoulder to cry on, not a fake smile or reasons why such a thing happened. Experiencing a miscarriage is as real as losing a fully grown loved one.
It's best not to say things like:
“Well at least you already have two kids”
“At least you were only eight weeks pregnant; it's not like you were eight months pregnant,'”
"You can always try again."
Saying things like this minimizes the family's loss.
“What helped the most [after my miscarriage] was to hear that people were thinking of me, or praying for me, or that they were sorry for my loss," Jennifer said. “I was, and am, eternally grateful for that.”
- End of Relationship
Break ups can be tricky, especially if you already weren't too fond of your loved one's choice for a companion. But in any case, breakups can be heart-wrenching, they can make you turn on a movie, sit under a blanket, and eat a tub of ice cream.
Psychotherapist Joyce recommends that “Instead of saying ‘I’m so sorry’ or assuming the person is feeling a certain way, say, ‘How are you?’ or ‘What can I do for you?’ or ‘How can I be a support to you?’ or ‘What do you need from me?'”
Because we all process our emotions differently, you and your loved one may not handle a breakup in the same way. Maybe your newly-single friend just needs to go out to dinner, have a good laugh, and not even mention Whatshisname, or perhaps they’ll need to vent. Either way, ask them what they need and deliver.
Finding the right words to say can be difficult especially in a moments notice,
In a nutshell, Joyce she reminds us that, ” It’s about being present to another person's pain; it is not about taking away the pain." Asking questions is always better than giving reasons why our loved one's situation isn't as bad as they think it is.
But we must remember that even though we want to be there for our friends and family, it is important to know that we can't fix it all and that it is not our responsibility to. We can't take the place of Jesus in someone's life, but we must be there to point them to God without getting in His way.
If you still get stumped in finding the right words, never hesitate to ask, "Can I pray for you?" If you get a "Yes,” then do it right on the spot, this will mean more to your loved one than they may ever let you know.