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What Not to Say When the Unthinkable Happens

When tragedy impacts those we love, we naturally want to help. And if we can’t help, we at least want to offer comfort, hope, and reassurance. All too often, however, our eagerness to say the right thing or to fix things blinds us to how our words might be received by the person suffering. Sometimes, our words of counsel sound helpful, but they often wind up pouring salt-in-the-wound to the person on the receiving end. So, when the unthinkable happens to someone you know, resist the temptation to say these any of the following 10 statements, no matter how good they sound to you. (I offer five helpful strategies you can take later in this article.)

1. “It could be worse.”

This statement minimizes a person’s loss and pain by essentially saying what they’re experiencing is not that bad. The last thing a hurting person (who, by the way, already knows “it could be worse”) wants to hear is that his/her pain isn’t legitimate.

For example, let’s say Jane’s husband experiences a debilitating stroke that impairs the use of one side of his body, but does not impair his thinking, reasoning, or speech. Jane is already well aware that her husband’s condition could be worse (he could be dead or further disabled – she doesn’t need to be reminded). But that doesn’t meant that what she’s experiencing isn’t frightening. Nor does it mean that she won’t grieve her husband’s deficits and their lost dreams. Instead of inadvertently minimizing someone’s pain, offer the kind of grace to hurting people that allows them to acknowledge their hurt.

2. “You can be thankful that…” or “Look at the bright side.”

Though it may sound similar to the first, this statement takes the opposite approach. Instead of minimizing a person’s suffering by offering scenarios that could be worse, these words minimize (and can even dismiss) a person’s heartache by looking at what is good in the situation. They say “don’t feel so bad.”

Using Jane’s example from above, of course she’s thankful that her husband isn’t dead or further impaired. Do we really think she wouldn’t be? But, by telling her to be thankful for her husband’s speech or intact mind, we’re actually saying “don’t feel bad.” Yet, it’s okay for Jane to feel bad about what’s happened and about her husband’s genuine and life-altering loss.

Being thankful for our blessings during tragic times is important. But, it doesn’t take away the need to recognize, experience, and work through real emotional pain.

3. “Something good will come out of this.” or “Every cloud has a silver lining.”

How do we know? And should we presume to know? The truth is we may never see good come from certain situations. Not in this lifetime, anyway. We may never understand the “why” factor or see how something terrible can be used to accomplish something good. Does God work all things for good for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28)? Absolutely. But His definition of good may differ from ours. And His ways are not our ways. And we can’t see eternity, as He can. We can’t see or predict the future.

Even if something good does come of a current tragedy (as we hope and as it often does), the person in pain may not be able to see that far ahead just yet. People in pain need us to allow them to walk through their pain honestly and without criticism before they can move on to embrace any positive outcomes that might result from their experiences.

4. “You’ll get over this in time,” or “Time heals all wounds.”

Another minimizing strategy, this counsel tells the hurting person that his/her pain is no big deal because it will soon pass. So, what is wrong with this counsel?

First, this statement may not be true! Some things simply won’t heal in this lifetime (parents of missing or abducted children, for example, rarely reach closure; they hurt and wonder for the rest of their earthly lives).

Second, it dismisses the reality of the present pain. A person in pain doesn’t care what this will feel like ten years from now or even next year. All he knows is what he feels now.

5. “Well, this wouldn’t have happened if…”

This statement represents a blaming technique, because the words attempt to cast responsibility on other people, policies, or actions. Again, to begin with, how can we presume to know what any outcome would have been? We simply don’t know, and second-guessing doesn’t help the person in pain. All it does is give vent to our need to blame.

6. “This is a difficult, I know. I felt the same way when…”

When the unthinkable happens, we often want to offer our experiences as comfort. But when pain or crisis is new, the last thing a hurting person wants to hear is our horror stories.

It feels like a one-up-manship: “Yes, your situation is bad, but wait until I tell you what happened to me.” To the hurting person, this type of statement can feel as uncaring and self-centered as it really is.

7. “What’s this world coming to? Before you know it we’ll all…”

The onset of the unthinkable is NOT the time rant. A person in pain doesn’t need to hear our opinions, or fears, or politics, or our philosophical waxings. The tragedy isn’t about us; it’s about those involved and their pain. Avoid statements that stoke the painful issue even more.

8. “I understand what you’re going through…”

Don’t make this statement unless you have actually gone through the same circumstance. How dare we presume to understand the grief of a father who’s just lost a son when we’ve never lost a child ourselves! How can we even begin to know the suffering of a wife whose husband just announced an affair and his intention to divorce her when our marriages are thriving? How can we say “I know what you’re going through” when we’ve never been through it? Yet, in our love-motivated attempts to help, we often make this mistake.

Instead, we can be honest. “I can’t possibly know what this is like for you, but I want you to know that I love you, support you, and I am here for you.”

9. “If you just pray with enough faith, God will…”

This statement is another blaming technique. That’s because it implies that the person in crisis is partly responsible for the tragedy or its outcome because she isn’t praying enough or with enough faith. These words not only fail to offer comfort, they also compound the person’s suffering by adding guilt into the mix.

In addition, this kind of statement implies that we know the mind of God. Can any of us say we know what God will do in a given circumstance? At best, we can know only what we hope He will do.

10. “I just read an article [or just finished a book] about this and it says to…”

People experiencing fresh pain don’t want or need clinical information – at least not yet. There will be a time for offering helpful resources and education. But, when tragedy strikes, people first need comfort. They need to be held and heard. They need to know that they aren’t alone.

Avoid the previous ten types of statement when someone you know experiences tragedy. Instead, use the following five strategies to provide genuine comfort during a difficult situation.

5 Ways to Help a Friend During a Difficult Time

1. Sometimes, the best thing you can offer is our silent presence. Just being there can bring comfort in a way words simply can’t. If appropriate, use touch, such as a hug, a hand resting on their hand or shoulder, etc.

2. When you can’t be there, send notes of encouragement that can be read at the hurting person’s leisure. Resist the urge to call, because people in tragic circumstances often don’t have the time, availability, energy, or emotional stamina to answer the phone.

3. Don’t ask what you can do. People in crisis can find it extraordinarily difficult to think clearly, remember things, or make decisions. Instead, offer specifics ideas, such as:

  • Let me check on your pets while you’re waiting at the hospital. [One less thing to worry about.]
  • Why don’t I watch the kids for you today so you can sleep this afternoon? [Crisis is exhausting.]
  • How about if I call a few people to let them know what’s happening and to ask them to pray? [Repeating the details can be emotionally draining for the people involved.]
  • I’m going to run to the grocery store today. What can I pick up for you?
  • Let me arrange for some other people to make meals for your family over the next several weeks, maybe just three or four meals each week. I’ll collect them and leave them on your front porch so you don’t have to deal with seeing all those people if you don’t feel up to it.
  • While you’re at the rehab center today, I’d like to stop over at your house and take care of any chores you need done: cleaning, taking out the trash, laundry — anything that would be helpful. What three things can I do while I’m there?
  • I know Johnny and Sally still have after-school practices and lessons to get to while this is going on. Why don’t you let me handle driving them to and from their various activities?

4. If a tragedy involves your friends having to spend a lot of time at a hospital, rehab center, doctors’ offices, or other places, give them (or mail anonymously to them) restaurant, gas station, or quick-stop gift certificates. It can help defray expenses and make it easier for them to eat healthy as they have opportunity during this difficult time.

5. Recognize their need for quiet, rest, and space. Don’t just “stop by” unannounced to drop something off or check on them. Don’t call everyday for updates. Don’t use this tragedy as an excuse to focus on your need to help or be involved. Instead, pray regularly for them and their situation (you don’t have to announce that you’re praying). Arrange (behind-the-scenes) a card shower (where many people send cards or notes of encouragement to “shower” the family with love and concern without invading their privacy). Or, send an e-mail with encouraging words.

Navigating a tragedy is never easy. When a storm hits the life of someone you know, give them the grace and space they need to work through the tragedy for as long as they need. There is no time-line for grief. But, by avoiding inflammatory statements and providing quiet support, you can be a lighthouse of hope to someone undergoing a dark time.