Have you found yourself having to comfort a friend after something unimaginable, yet? If not, someday you will. All of us will eventually find ourselves sitting awkwardly with someone who is facing an overwhelming tragedy. Here’s what to say, when you don’t know what to say.
What’s the right thing to say and do?
After today’s EWC article, we will all feel better in that moment. And the answers will surprise and empower you!
We begin today’s insightful journey with an amazing story told by Adrianne Haslet-Davis, whose TEDx Talk that has been viewed over 4 million times.
There’s a reason why this TEDx has been shared so much: Adrianne tells one of the most empowering and compelling personal stories I have ever heard. And most of all, her story leaves us with some precious insight into our own stories.
After that, a friend and I will share our recommendations on what to say when you don’t know what to say.
My friend, Dr. Barrett Peterson, an orthodontist, has just survived an 18-month ordeal with a very rare stage 4 cancer and I experienced a parenting nightmare, years ago, that completely changed my approach to others who are facing the worst.
Dr. Peterson and I got together over dinner recently and through alternating tears and smiles we came up with some recommendations that you may treasure someday when you are at a loss for words.
Both Adrianne, Dr. Peterson, and I have some tips on how both you and your friends can sustain each other through those first difficult moments and weeks together.
Take a look at this remarkable gem of a TED talk…
Our frequent readers know how much we love TED. Seeing the impact of that talk, how can you not? TED.com is one of the most interesting and inspiring corners of the web. EWC features the best of their talks a couple of times each month. If I do say so myself, EWC and TED are the only places I have found where smart people, curious and hopeful, can always come away transformed. Check out our list of favorites from TED here!
I loved Adrianne’s first piece of advice:
“Take the temperature of the room before you speak.”
If you only remember one or two things from this article, that phrase and one other near the end here today may be enough.
I made mistakes on that “taking the temperature of the room” advice many times until I went through my own experience of being cast into a new reality in an instant.
My ordeal came with no warning in 1997, when I gave birth to a 1 pound baby, Louisa, at only 23 weeks, 5 days of gestation. That’s four and a half months early. (At that time, there were no living 22-week babies.)
I was just 5 months pregnant when my water broke unexpectedly one night and my daughter’s tiny feet were born, but not the rest of her!
For 24 hours I lay motionless in a hospital bed while Louisa remained in limbo like that.
Whenever the nurses came back in to ask us more about what we wanted for the “funeral arrangement”, her tiny legs would kick madly.
Do we want her cremated? Do we want to hold her for a while, after she dies? Do we want our photo taken with her before they take her tiny body away? Do we want her baptized?
But miraculously, on day two, when she did slip out fully, she cried like any other full-term baby; she was alive! They whisked her away to the intensive care unit where we all settled in for the thrills and spills of NICU-life for four long months. (We nearly lost her on a few occasions.)
And here’s the thing:
Tragedy is never something you can prepare for. It just plucks you from your ordinary life and drops you on a new planet. In that new world, in an instant, everything that is precious and important changes.
I thought this sort of thing happened to other people! I was perfectly healthy and yet there I was with a baby the exact dimensions of a Barbie doll.
Day by day Doctors subtly reminded us that there was very little chance she would survive. They told us that if she did survive, she would almost surely have such grave disabilities that it called into questions the logic of trying to save her life.
Because of their complete lack of hope and grave warnings, we had a “do not resuscitate” order on her for weeks.
Moment by moment, for most of a summer and a fall, I waited for the other foot to fall; the grim reaper peering over one shoulder, and our instincts for hope peering over the other.
My mother arrived bringing a tiny “hope chest” she had hand-painted, about the size of an average shoe-box, and it sat on our kitchen counter for months untouched. My husband and I both secretly thought that we would bury her in it if the worst happened.
The best visitors I had were the people who did exactly what Adrianne advised in her TED Talk: they took the temperature of the room and matched it. If we were laughing, they laughed. If the mood was somber, they were just quiet and present with us.
Here’s a concrete example for you: My way of coping was to keep making little, positive goals throughout each day. For me, I like to work through catastrophe by getting small things done and reminding myself of the best possible outcomes. I don’t dwell on the worst.
But I had a very good friend who visited me with a consistently grave, somber energy and tears welling up in her eyes. She seemed unable to speak a word to me without rubbing my back while talking in a pitiful whisper. It drove me completely crazy and I spent most of her visits feeling like I had to comfort her!
It was kind of a blessing that she didn’t visit very often, but that was part of the problem too. Our friendship never did recover and eventually, we lost touch completely.
My recommendation: Resist the urge to say what you think you would want to hear in a similar situation.
In fact, remember how different you and your friend are, and try to approach the conversation entirely from their point of view.
So, What Do We Say?
In my large dental practice, I’m faced with speaking to patients almost every week who have suffered some great loss. I always enter their treatment room with a neutral demeanor, and then match the tone of the room while saying something like,
“John, I’m so sorry you are having to go through this. I’m at a loss for words, but I want you to know that I’m always here for you.”
Then they will say something back to me that guides the conversation forward on their terms completely.
I listen carefully and notice their body language. If they want to tell me the story, they will. If they don’t want to talk about it, that will be obvious, and I move on, keeping things with some sense of normalcy.
Source: Liesl Ulrich-Verderber
Here’s Dr. Peterson’s advice: It’s almost better to say nothing than to say something very wrong. So, consider those first words carefully.
Especially in these days of text messaging, when no emotion can come through with your text, if you get a sudden, tragic text from a friend it means you are on their “A” list. A simple statement about how you will be there for them and they can count on your support will suffice at first. Eventually, the right words will come to you.
I agree with Adrianne, who also recommended we don’t share our personal religious philosophy with the person facing tragedy. Religious or personal philosophy systems take years to become a place where people find strength.
If a friend is suddenly facing catastrophe, personal philosophy rhetoric from others almost always sounds shallow and self-serving. I know it’s tough to hear that because sometimes you may feel that the things that work for you are the best things you can give your friend.
But in a real tragedy, it’s unconditional love, not personal philosophy that will be most welcome.
I had people telling me I just needed to put all my faith in God’s will. And others who wanted me to put healing crystals in Louisa’s incubator. Dr. Peterson had people trying to be supportive by going into great detail about the magic of the latest nutrition fad they were into.
It just comes out wrong and feels like you don’t appreciate the gravity of the situation to suggest that including vast quantities of coconut oil or probiotics will solve stage 4 cancer.
When all else fails, simply say,
“Carolyn, I’m here for you and we’ll get through this together.”
“Carolyn, what’s the best thing I can do for you right now?”
Listen carefully to their response, and then match their energy and let things flow naturally. Something better will come to you later.
Maybe you can offer to do something simple like going to get them a milkshake, or picking up their kids from soccer practice.
Dr. Peterson’s advice: Something simple can mean the world to others.
He likes to tell the story of the first month after his surgery, when a good friend would stop by every morning on his way to work, to deliver a freshly made protein shake, complete with calorie count noted.
Dr. P has another story of a friend who offered to drive him to his chemo treatments and keep him company, yet all Dr. P wanted was to get through them with a good book.
The friend quickly picked up on that preference without being told and always sat quietly beside Dr. P, just reading his own book. It turned out perfect!
How do you know how much to do?
If you get a call from your friend or their family about the tragedy, then you are considered in the “inner circle” and you need to be at your friend’s side if possible, the same day.
Even if you don’t feel like you are a close friend, go. They might be thinking you would be great in helping them make a particular decision.
If you get texted about the tragedy, then you are on the “super inner circle” and both Dr. P and I recommend dropping whatever you are doing and getting to your friend’s house immediately.
When we got the text about Dr. P’s cancer diagnosis, my husband canceled patients for only the second time in 25 years and was by Dr. P’s side within an hour.
You don’t have to be in the inner circles to do something nice.
When our daughter was in the hospital, we came home one day to find a fully decorated Christmas Tree standing 6 feet tall on our back porch. The people who dropped it off just thought we might not have time to put up a tree for the holidays. What a generous thought!
Another patient of ours just came to the office one day with all her own supplies and asked our secretary for my car keys. Then she spent 2 hours cleaning my dreadful car. We had been eating, changing clothes and practically living in our car for months, driving back a forth to a distant hospital, so it was bad.
Leaving the office to find the car like new was one of the best surprises I’ve ever had.
Both Dr. Peterson and I suggest: Do what you do best.
Dr. P had friends who were great gardeners and a crew organized itself one day to come over to “take back” their entire yard which he had not been able to care for in months.
When it was obvious that Dr. Peterson’s big old house needed to be sold, another dear friend, who had a flair for decorating, spent days and days making the house look like a magazine cover.
You get the point: do what you can do best and it will never go unappreciated.
Here’s one of the greatest pitfalls to avoid…
Never say, “Just let me know what I can do for you.”
People who are suffering are never going to contact us.
To the person living in the depths of despair, the statement “Just let me know if you need anything.” totally leaves another monkey on their back and I have to admit that before I had my own tragedy, I did this almost every time I was in the company of someone inside a catastrophe. It just seems like the right thing to say, but it’s not.
It just leaves the burden of maintaining your relationship on the person who is already suffering and trying to hold up the tent poles of their life.
If you feel your friend’s family has all the bases covered, and you wonder where you can help, you can say,
“Jane, I feel like your mother has all your bases covered. What do you miss that she can’t, or doesn’t have time to do for you?”
Then make a few obvious suggestions that relate to what you do best. Are you a great cook? Or a great cleaner/organizer? Can you make a trip to the pharmacy or take the kids to the pool?
Reach out soon and stay in touch
Don’t put off the first visit or call.
No matter how much you worry about saying the wrong thing, remember, it’s not about you. Your friend will appreciate hearing you love them and you’ll always be there for them. And maybe they will just want you to listen. That is enough.
Keep in mind that when a friend’s expectations for their life have been shattered. They will need their friendships to remain stable.
If you don’t keep your bond with them strong, then your friend will have yet another loss to cope with.
People go through grief in different ways. Some people require their privacy and their family-only space, while others will take strength from your simple presence. Visit briefly and early. Take the temperature on things. Then decide if you are better in the foreground or the background.
But keep the lines of communication open with short texts or phone messages every 3 days or so.
Or better yet, send a hand-written note once a week to the private ones. Just make sure your friend knows that you are available when they are ready.
Here’s something both Barrett and I found interesting: Visits that are convenient for the visitor don’t count.
I know it sounds ungrateful, but it’s just the facts. If you just stop by to see your friend on the way to a Red Sox game, or on the way to do your own errands, it’s just not the same.
Listen to understand, not to decide what to say next.
If there is nothing you can do to change the situation, then just being truly present is often enough.
Acknowledge all the points that the person is making, and don’t try to “fix” things for them.
In the worst moments in life, most people don’t expect anyone to fix things, they just want to be heard and know they will not be alone.
Here’s a great way to let someone know you just want to meet them where they are: you can say,
“Bob, do you think a chat would do you some good today, or can I just keep you company?”
Offer support for other family members
If the person suffering the tragedy has a spouse, kids, aging parents, or other family members who depend on them, sometimes the best thing you can do is to take care of the suffering person’s loved ones.
For instance, about a month after our 1 pound baby was born, some lovely patients of ours called to say they’d love to have our 4-year-old come over to spend the afternoon with them to swim in their pool. It was genius! I had been so worried about my pre-schoolers’ well-being, but couldn’t do much extra for her after spending 14 hours a day in the hospital.
You can offer to pick-up or drop-off kids; Take coffee and some home-baked cookies to the spouse. Offer to spend an afternoon looking after the person whose suffering, so a caregiver can take an afternoon to themselves.
Finding the sweet spot is important: don’t butt in, or be too pushy.
Do the little things without being asked and offer to do the bigger things with grace.
Avoid trivial discussion of your own life
The person suffering the tragedy will still want to keep up with others and what’s happening in their community, but not that much. Just keep it short and see where the conversation goes.
I had an acquaintance, the wife of a dentist we knew well, who showed up at the hospital on our third day in the NICU, to see how we were doing. Unfortunately, after she was satisfied that we had our act together, she kept me in the waiting room for an hour telling me about her marital problems.
It was really disorienting for me. I eventually had to just cut her off in mid-sentence and head back into the NICU. Neither of us felt good about the conversation. I’m sure she was embarrassed and I felt guilty.
For my own part, I know I’ve made the same mistake with others, before I had my own reference point.
When my father was dying, one day I was struggling in my own efforts to pass the time with him so we turned on the TV. My father was an avid tennis player before he got cancer so we were holding hands while watching the U.S Open tennis tournament and all the while I was fighting to keep things positive and “normal”. I blabbered on about the tennis match, and the players, and the things I’d heard about the backstory of the match, and then my father turned to me to say,
“Hun, when you are as near dying as I am, it’s the strangest thing, almost everything you once thought you cared about doesn’t matter anymore.”
That was my cue to take the temperature of the room – a lesson I thought I knew – and stop talking about tennis drivel.
I looked around the room for clues about what exactly he was interested in talking about and I noticed a book by Plato on the bedside table with many pages turned down. I asked him about it (he had never been one to read philosophy before) and we spent the rest of the afternoon having an amazing conversation about Plato’s observations and how they relate to life and death.
We passed the most amazing afternoon together. It’s a day I will treasure.
Who knew!? It was awkwardness turned into a gift because I just used some powers of observation!
Don’t forget to include them!
People don’t stop wanting a normal life when they have a tragedy befall them. In fact, they may want it more than ever. Invitations to birthday parties and other special events should keep coming.
Let them decide if they feel up to it. Sometimes it’s good to have a reason to get cleaned up and put on a happy face, other times, they might decline last minute. Leave it open and welcoming.
Here’s my best piece of advice for both you and your friend…
Somewhere along my life’s journey, I learned to say a simple phrase to myself and others when things seem hopelessly complex or disappointing.
I like to say,
“No feeling lasts forever.”
Dr. P tells me I said that to him early in his ordeal and he has leaned on the concept repeatedly in very low moments.
Try it sometime when you feel like you can’t go on or the sky has fallen. I found that if I was in the dumps, I would remind myself that no feeling lasts forever, and then I would get busy. I’d start doing something so as to not dwell on my situation.
After a while, I’d usually have to remind myself again. But then, gradually, things do change, and a horizon appears that I had no idea existed.
It’s true you know. No feeling lasts forever.
And most of the time, the worst doesn’t happen.
Dr. Peterson is healthy and back to living like he was before the diagnosis, but more attentive to the things that are really precious and even more full of wonder than ever. (He’s always been the most positive and generous person I’ve ever known.)
As to my own story of our one pound baby: she is now 19 years old, without a single physical or intellectual disability.
And, as to those day’s when you will need to say something when you don’t know what to say, Maybe something like,
“I’m always going to be here for you, and in the rough patches, we can remind each other that no feeling lasts forever.”
One last thing…
Only 2 hours after we posted today’s article, Liesl (my EWC partner) got an email message thanking her for publishing this article today. This new friend to EWC had read the article just before driving to the funeral of a good friend’s husband who had died of pancreatic cancer.
She was so grateful to have this new perspective.
So share this article widely. You never know who it may touch, and you could be starting ever-widening circles of great comfort.
We’ve found that pieces like this have a lovely way of rippling outward, eventually landing right in front of people who need them.
Stay open, curious and hopeful!
~ Dr. Lynda
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