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What to Do If You Don’t Know What to Say to Someone in Crisis or Grieving

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My story on supporting parents of children with medical needs is by far my most widely read and shared post. Since writing it, so many people have contacted me with their own stories of quite shocking things that have been said to them. It’s got me thinking there is a lot of scope for people to learn about crisis and grief.

Most people don’t intentionally say the wrong thing. They don’t intentionally hurt you. They possibly don’t even mean what they say. They are just so lost for words that instead of not saying anything (the best option when someone is lost for words) they feel they have to say something. That “something” can hurt. A lot.

What is it that make us feel the need to speak? What is wrong with silence? Or just a hug? Or an “I’m so sorry”? Why do we feel the need to make people feel better, when there is nothing that can actually make them feel better at that particular moment? Are we are so afraid of grief, sadness or an outward display of emotion that we have lost the ability to connect with people who are suffering? To just let them feel grief, and move through it?

Or is it that we can’t handle not being in control? We can’t do anything about the tiny baby needing open heart surgery, the incurable disease, the person taken too soon, so we do the only thing we can do — say something to try and make the people suffering feel better? Or even try and justify the situation, saying something like “There’s a reason for this.”

Let me break something to you — some things can’t be justified. Some things don’t make sense. Some things are far beyond human understanding. Sometimes people do learn to live in incredibly difficult circumstances. Some things just suck.

Sometimes, the best thing you can do is to support people in other ways. Not actually by using words. Especially not well-thought-out words. If you’re speaking to someone who is in the midst of a crisis and don’t know what to say, just give them a hug and say “I’m so sorry.” Or just say nothing. Saying nothing is better than saying something hurtful.

This is a lot people forget after a crisis, but there is also quite a lot people remember. And from my own experience and from speaking to others, unfortunately hurtful words can really sting and stick in the long term. But you know what? I don’t remember the people who said nothing. And that’s not in a bad way. It’s not that I don’t appreciate them or value their friendship. It’s not that I don’t remember them visiting or supporting us.

What I don’t remember is them needing to fulfill their own urge to speak. I don’t remember them trying to fix our problem. I don’t remember them telling me “medicine is amazing these days.” I don’t remember them trying to justify our situation.

These are the people I will turn to next time we’re in crisis. The ones who just cared for us, loved on us and are still riding the journey with us. The ones who suppressed their own desire to speak, who didn’t judge us for how we felt or try and “fix us” and chose to just be with us. And I can’t thank them enough.

Follow this journey on my blog

Getty image by nadia_bormotova

Originally published: February 2, 2021
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