10 Things You Should Never Say to Someone Going Through a Hard Time
Maybe your friend just got a bad diagnosis. Or your sister is going through a divorce. Either way, bad things happen to the people we love, and that sucks, but that doesn’t mean we can ignore it.
Enter a terrific new book, There Is No Good Card for This, which walks you through how to react when the people you love are in pain. Written by two cancer survivors, Kelsey Crowe, Ph.D. (founder of the nonprofit Help Each Other Out) and Emily McDowell (who’s funny empathy cards caught our attention back in 2015), this helpful book has advice for what to say and do when friends and family are going through everything from illness and loss to infertility and divorce.
The whole book is more than worth a read, but here are ten takeaways—things you should never say to someone going through a hard time.
McDowell and Crowe note that compassion is not the same thing as pity. Saying things like “That’s just so sad” isn’t supportive. The authors give us this situation: You see an old man walking slowly with a cane. You could think, “It must be so hard for that poor guy. I feel so sorry for him,” or you could think, “Wow, that guy is inspiring. I hope I can do the same at his age.” The former is pity; the latter is compassion.
When faced with a bad diagnosis or other painful life change, everyone reacts differently. Some people are sharers, but others prefer to keep the news to themselves. Understand that friends and family don’t owe you a full rundown of everything that’s going on in their lives, and don’t expect that. If they do disclose something to you, no matter if it’s months (or years) after the fact, just say that you’re sorry and ask how they’re doing.
Again, this has to do with the different ways people deal with hardships. You might think that in their shoes you’d want to get out of the house, but in their mind that might sound like torture. Where invitations are concerned, don’t leave someone out, but don’t pressure them into doing anything either. If they feel up to it, great, but if not, that’s 100 percent fine and should be totally supported.
Unless you’re a doctor specializing in whatever ailment a person has (hell, even if you’re a doctor specializing in whatever ailment a person has), don’t offer unsolicited health advice. They’ve probably already gone through lots of options with their own physician, and chances are they’d rather just have your support anyway.
You might believe that, and that’s great, but unless you know the person you’re talking to believes the same thing, understand that it might not feel particularly comforting.
This simple question is usually harmless, but be aware that in certain situations, like after a traumatic loss or diagnosis, the answer is so painfully obvious that you should probably avoid it. For instance, it’s OK to ask a friend going through a divorce how she’s doing, but if a friend lost someone close to her suddenly, it’s best to stick to “I’m so sorry” in the immediate aftermath.
Whatever you do, don’t trivialize what someone is going through. Maybe divorce is easy for some people, but your friend could be in a lot of pain, and your suggestion that it’s no big deal is insensitive.
A general rule of thumb: Skip comparisons. When someone tells you about a diagnosis, avoid making it about you or someone you know. Crowe and McDowell point out that saying things like “I know how you feel” can make it harder for someone to divulge how they’re actually feeling, and can be even more isolating.
This isn’t helpful. Like the “Don’t worry about it” thing, this minimizes what someone’s going through. Maybe their situation could be worse, but that doesn’t mean it’s not hard or painful. Again, stick to saying you’re sorry and asking if there’s any way you can help.
Reaching out to a friend in need can be tough or awkward, but Crowe and McDowell insist that it’s better than saying nothing. It could be as simple as a phone call (or even an email) to say that you’re thinking of them, but reaching out in some way or another is better than ignoring the situation, which could make them feel worse, and lead to regret on your part.