Photo by Thomas hawk via Flickr

Over the past few years, I have known quite a few people who have gone through genuinely sad stages in their lives and in my current role, I am confronted with these situations often.

Whether it’s the death of a loved one, the breakdown of a marriage or a serious health crisis, sometimes our lives are full of grief and sadness. 

I want to take away the pain of the person experiencing such anguish and grief, but I’m conscious that I don’t often have the words to do so.

So what should we do in such situations?

Be there.  Sometimes, it’s not our words that bring comfort, but our presence.  We often don’t know what to say, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t listen to their story or supply the tissues while they cry.

Don’t stay away because you fear saying the wrong thing.  Just being available to listen and comfort those in pain can often be more helpful than anything else that we can do. 

Don’t avoid the subject.  We had friends who tragically lost a child to a long-term illness.  As they reflected on their experience later, they recalled that people avoided the subject when they met, leading them to feel more isolated in their pain than was necessary. 

Sometimes, when people are experiencing grief and loss, they need to talk about it, but don’t know how.  Ask them how they’re doing, even weeks and months after the event.  Remember significant occasions like birthdays, anniversaries, Christmas and Mother’s Day or Father’s Day as they may be especially painful. 

Just don’t avoid the subject because you feel uncomfortable and don’t know what to say.

Avoid pithy sayings.  In our earnestness to help, it can be tempting to use trite statements that we think will bring comfort, but only help us to feel better about ourselves.  Here are a few statements I would suggest to avoid:

  • That which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. 
  • Everything happens for a reason.
  • I know how you feel.
  • It’s time to move on.

When you are tempted to come out with one of these (and other) superficial phrases, stop yourself.  You’re better off saying nothing at all.

Don’t try to solve the problem.  Often when confronted with a painful situation, our automatic response is to try to fix things.  This is especially true for men as we have an inbuilt problem solving mentality that can get in the way of listening.  By turning our hurting friends into projects to be fixed, we make it all about us and not about them. 

Embrace silence.  Sometimes, we are afraid of those moments when no-one is saying anything and in a panic, end up saying something that we later regret. 

There’s an ancient proverb that wisely says, “Do not speak unless you can improve the silence.” 

You may not know what to say, so don’t feel compelled to say anything. 

You can’t always take away the pain, but you can always be a friend. 

Be there for them during their darkest days, don’t avoid the subject and perhaps you can at least be a source of comfort.

I don’t claim to be an expert in this area, but I’ve learned from the mistakes that I’ve made. 

Is there anything else that we can do when a friend goes through a painful stage of life?

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