What Not to Say During Difficult Times

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Growing up is hard, and sometimes it straight-up sucks. If there were no twists and turns, life would be pretty easy. Boring, you could argue. To those going through a difficult circumstance, however, a straight, smooth path can be a strong desire.

Whether it be the death of a loved one, a struggle with infertility, divorce, the loss of a job, a family member with illness or special need, or any other unplanned event, life gets hard. In those moments it is vital to have friends and family who love you for you, support you without question, and don’t have to say anything to say the thing you need to hear most.

Unfortunately, we as a society do not prepare for life’s challenges. Maybe it’s because the unknown is uncomfortable. Or maybe ignorance is bliss. Either way, life happens and it is important we know how to properly support those around us. If you have followed me on my blog, PreachTeach, you have journeyed along with me through the tragic loss of my father. Talking with friends and family who have suffered the loss of a loved one or the loss of a job, or who have battled infertility, I’ve learned that grieving is present in all life’s unexpected challenges. While the primary loss is significant, there are always secondary losses that come with it. Maybe it’s the loss of a dream, a loss of self-worth, or a loss of a lifestyle.

While the specifics of everyone’s difficulties can vary, I have found the following interactions to be similar frustrations. Here is a list of what NOT to say to those who are going through a difficult time:

What Not to Say to a Grieving Friend1. “How are you?”

Everyone says, “Hey, how are ya?” The clerk at the grocery store, the waiter at the restaurant, even the neighbor out walking his dog. This is not the “How are you?” I’m referring to. It’s the slow “How ARE you?” with the head tilt and arm reaching out to touch my shoulder. Seriously, if you wanted to know how I REALLY was, you wouldn’t have waited until we randomly ran into each other in the toilet paper aisle at Target. And what do you really want to know anyway? That I’m sad? That I’m depressed? That I’m wearing the same pants I’ve worn the last four days? Or that I’m questioning every choice I ever made? “How ARE you?” is a loaded question, and while no one would reasonably answer like this, it is impossible to answer because “Good” is a lie and the truth would take too long.

Instead, say, “I’ve been thinking about you,” or “It’s good to see you.” Both of these statements are caring and leave the pressure off the person who is struggling.

2. “I know how you feel.”

Before I was a mom, I couldn’t relate to those I knew who were sleep-deprived and covered in spit-up. Commonality is helpful, relatable, and often times comforting. The problem with this statement lies in the context. During my grief journey, I had someone email me and tell me, for five paragraphs, how I was feeling. This person had never lost a parent, so you can image the lack of empathy did not go over well. Even when situations are similar, feelings are very individual.

Instead, say, “I empathize with how you are feeling,” or “I’m sorry you are going through this.” Listening is the most important thing! You do not need to synthesize your friend’s feelings. You are helping by just letting her share.

3. “I have a friend going through the exact same thing.”

This kind of goes along with number two. I think people say this as a way to relate, or a way to provide hope during a dark time. However, saying, “I have a friend…” depersonalizes your friend’s situation and devalues her feelings. That other friend isn’t relative at that moment – the one in front of you is.

Instead, try to refrain from bringing your other friend into the conversation. Just be present, and offer, “I’m always here if you need to talk.”

4. “God won’t give you more than you can handle.”

First, this statement infers that I am somehow in control of my circumstances, which is a lot of pressure. Second, God is good. He is peace. He doesn’t GIVE bad things to his children. He says, “In this world, you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). When awful things happen, it is very natural to ask God, “Why?” To wonder why He would allow such a thing to happen to you. Or even to be angry with Him that you have to go through this. The world is ugly. The devil is real, but so is God. Search after Him. Seek to find the answer to that “Why?” God comforts. He provides peace. Life isn’t always easier or disaster free, but it IS worth living.

Instead, say, “I’m praying for you,” or “I love you.” Speak for yourself, not for God. Offer to pray, to listen, to help, or to give a hug.

I love these words! A memorial dedicated to my dad at Veenker Golf Course in Ames.
I love these words! A memorial dedicated to my dad at Veenker Golf Course in Ames.

The truth is there is no one way to grieve. There is no right way to handle difficult situations. We have to learn this fact. We have to accept that others will react differently and cope differently to situations than we think we would. Therefore, be a good listener and remember you don’t have to say anything to show you care. If you happen to find yourself in a difficult time right now, I am sorry. Remember, people really do mean well, so try to give them a little grace. Hang in there!

What would you add to the list? What is something you found comforting to hear others tell you during a difficult time?

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