What To Say (and Not Say) When Someone Dies or Suffers a Tragedy
How to Console Someone
When someone is experiencing intense emotional suffering, it’s hard to know exactly how to go about consoling them. It’s important to remain calm and positive yourself. Whether someone has just had an accident, has received heartbreaking news, or has lost control of their emotions an account of ongoing stress in their lives, there are some reliable basic steps to take when seeking to console someone.
Saying the Right Things When Someone is Upset
Tell the person that you care.There’s no “right” thing to say when someone is in emotional pain – especially when there is a perfectly reasonable reason for their suffering. Choose your words, your voice, and your manners in terms of what will convey that you care. At the simplest level, this requires that you act as normally as possible. Further, only say things that are sympathetic, non-judgmental, patient, and accepting. These will often be simple, open-ended statement that will encourage the other person to open up.
- Another possible thing to say is, “I’m so sorry about ______.” Don’t be worried about mentioning something painful; if they are upset, they are already thinking about it.
- Say things like, “It’s perfectly alright to cry.”
Avoid false cheerfulness.There will come a time for lighthearted jokes and hopeful statements. When someone is feeling deeply distressed or is experiencing intense sorrow, any cheeriness may ring hollow. Worse, anything that comes across as insincere may be seem to belittle the gravity of what they are feeling. Respect how the person is feeling by taking care not to disregard their current emotions.
- Avoid statements like, “Look on the bright side,” or otherwise trying to put a positive spin on something that is obviously giving someone immense pain.
- In sum, don’t say anything with the sole intention of “cheering someone up.” Instead, allow someone in emotional distress to release any feelings of despair or anger, not repress them.
- Focus on conveying the fact that you are simply there for them with statements like, “You’re not alone in this. I’m right here with you.”
Be sensitive to the situation.Depending on why someone is upset, you need to avoid saying things that but may come across as insensitive. For instance, never say anything along the lines of “It was God’s will.” Such a statement does absolutely nothing to address how a person is feeling.
- Whenever unsure, make sure that what you’re saying does not minimize or invalidate the suffering that another person is going through.
- Sometimes, even statements that are “true,” must be avoided. For instance, you do not want to tell a mother who just miscarried that she could have another child. While this may be accurate, it ignores her current suffering regarding the loss of her pregnancy.
Open the door for them to do the talking.At some point, they should talk about how they’re feeling. You may even have to guide them to do so. Say something like, “I know it may hurt to talk about, but you should feel free to talk to me about______, now or whenever you want to.” Feel free to do this at any point after they’ve calmed down – even some time after a traumatic incident.
- Avoid equating your own experiences to what someone else is going through. Don’t say “I know how you feel,” even if you have had a similar experience.Instead, say things like, “I know how much ____ meant to you."
- Be honest when you're at a loss for words by saying something along the lines of “I don’t know you’re feeling, but I care about you and I want to help.”
- You can also say “I don’t know what to say, but I’m here for you, and I’m always willing to listen.”
Offer to follow up.Often, people will receive a lot of emotional support immediately following a traumatic incident. Unfortunately, this support will often wane. Indicate that your support will be ongoing by saying something along the lines of, “Hey, can I call you back in a few weeks to see how you’re doing?”
- Do not be concerned that you’re bringing up something that someone may not want to talk about. If they don’t want to, they’ll say that. But chances are, they need to. Either way, the knowledge of your continued support will be a source of comfort.
Supporting Someone Enduring Emotional Hardship
Don’t rush to establish the next move.Someone enduring emotional hardship may struggle to be decisive, or may simply not know how to behave or what to do. This is an indication of vulnerability, and is an entirely natural reaction to distress. They may not even want to talk about whatever happened, and you shouldn’t push them to do so unless someone else’s safety or well-being depends on it.
- If someone insists they need space, give it to them. Tell them you’ll check back with them in a few days. Let them know they can contact you whenever they wish to do so and that you’re there for them whenever they want to spend time together.
Maintain contact.Don’t be incessant, but make sure you behave in a way that lets them know you’re still thinking about them, and that their wellbeing matters to you. Call or send a card if a week goes by without hearing from them. Avoid texting, emailing, or using social media to convey condolences, as these communication tools are informal and impersonal.
- Don’t avoid or ignore someone because you’re uncomfortable with what they’re going through or don’t know how to talk to them. If you’re uncertain about what to do or say, convey your condolences and ask if there is anything you can do.
Accept their silence.If they seem to want you around but aren’t saying much, don’t let their silence bother you. Don’t allow your own nervousness to lead you to talk nonstop. Remind yourself that they may simply want your company. Feel free to ask questions about how they’re feeling, or what they’re thinking about. If they are persistently thinking about whatever happened, they likely need to talk about to it release any pent-up emotions.
- Avoid asking someone how they feel if you run into them at a social function. While you should encourage them to talk about how they’re feeling, do so in an environment where you have privacy and can give them your full attention.
Help with basic needs.Following a traumatic incident, some people will be physically exhausted or depressed. They may sleep more than usual, and may let struggle to complete everyday chores. Help out by doing a load of laundry or cleaning the dishes. Take care not to do everything though, as this may impede their recovery or make them feel pitied. People need to feel capable of taking care of themselves, even when they need a bit of help doing so.
Help them make plans to move forward.When the person seems ready, ask them what they plan to do. Don’t be surprised if they do not know or are not excited to talk about it. Provide some potential routes that they might take while offering to help them do so. Even when making recommendations, try to do more listening than talking, and only offer actionable advice.
- Any suggestions you make should be based on things they’ve said themselves.
- Asking them who and what they think might help is a good place to start.
- Stay alert for any signs of worsening emotional distress.
- If you ever have the inclination that they need professional help, encourage them to get it. Be prepared to do so by having the contact information to relevant people and organizations available.
Comforting a Stranger Who is Emotionally Upset
Assess the situation as you approach someone.When you don’t know why someone is upset, first ensure that no one is in danger, and then attempt to calm them down. The best way to get the information you need to do so is to ask what has happened. Before doing so, however, assess the situation to make sure you can approach someone safely.
- Initially, look around. Are others around who may know what happened or may be able to help? Are there any apparent dangers in the area?
Offer to help.Approach the person and indicate that you’re there to help. If you do not know the person, introduce yourself as well be saying something like, “Hey, I’m ____, and I’m here to help.” If they do not say anything, continue by asking if you can join them and beginning to do so. As you sit down, say something along the lines of, “If it’s alright with you, I’m going to sit with you for a while.”
- If knowledge of your career might also comfort a stranger – for instance, if you’re a teacher, doctor, or firefighter – you might also want to mention this as well.
- Avoid giving generalized reassurance. Though it may be tempting to say something like “everything will be okay,” this ignores how the person is feeling in the moment. Statements like this may even make someone who is upset less willing to receive consolation.
Ask what you can do to help.It’s important to establish what has happened. Keep questions simple, but straightforward, and try to figure out what has happened. Specifics things to look for include any indications that a person may be suffering from more than emotional distress, and what the person needs. Recognize that it is unlikely that you will be able to resolve the situations. Your focus is on getting them calm, and seeing to it that they get further help if needed.
- Speak calmly, slowly, and softly. Avoid whispering or shouting.
- Be ready to back off if the person perceives you as a threat or acts aggressively towards you. If either of these occur, make sure that authorities are on the way, but remain at a safe distance.
Listen, listen, listen.Listening closely to someone, especially someone who is upset, takes patience and care. Holding eye contact may not be appropriate, as someone who is upset may feel vulnerable or embarrassed. Sit with someone quietly, ideally beside them. Make sure your body language is relaxed, and don’t move around.
- As the other person is speaking, offer non-verbal encouragement by nodding and making affirmative sounds to indicate that you’re listening.
- Do not argue with that an upset person is saying. They may be saying things that do not make sense, or that may even be insensitive.
- Keep in mind that your goal is consoling the person, not having a conversation, and that their brain is likely flooded with emotion.
Stay calm.A person experiencing intense emotional distress will also be experiencing changes in their body chemistry that prime them to fight or to flee. Aside from being extremely sad, they will also likely be jumpy, easily irritated, and confused. They will have trouble listening and concentrating, and may not be able to follow what you’re saying. Accordingly, focus on conveying a sense of safety and an environment of calmness.
- If the person insists on a drastic or unreasonable action, do not argue with them. Rather, propose alternatives and otherwise attempt to distract them from any course of action that may be unsafe.
Use humor cautiously.While humor and lightheartedness can help people cope, it may not be appropriate when someone is deeply distressed. Let the suffering person take the lead; if they crack a joke about a humorous side effect of something that has happened, join them in their laughter.
- Humor may be especially helpful in serious situations, wherein a moment of respite might help someone calm down. Just make sure you know the person who is upset will appreciate any humor before trying to lighten up the situation.
Stay with the person until they calm down.As long as the person isn't injured or at risk in another way, they may simply need to calm down. For instance, if someone received traumatizing news, or witnessed a traumatic event, they may become extremely emotionally upset, but not be in any medical danger. In these situations, an ambulance is unnecessary, and may contribute to further distress. Continue providing emotional support and wait until the person is able to speak with you or someone else about what to do.
Video: How to Comfort a Friend in 3 Easy Steps
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