What I do know is that hard times make awkward conversations. When roses are blooming, the kids are playing frisbee, and Dad is happy about his job promotion and his wife, it's easy to have a seamless conversation. Turn life upside down and shake the shattered pieces onto the floor, and someone's going to step on something painful. What the heck do we say when life lies splattered and shattered around us?
Here are a few things NOT to say.
It's all for the best.
This comes in several varieties. A friend who recently had a second miscarriage said people trying to comfort her sometimes said, "God needed your child." As she pointed out, God does not need my child. He's God! My child is His, whether my child is here or there. And what does that imply? That God's desire to have my child beside him outweighs His desire for me and my child to be happy together? As she said, Heavenly Father wants me to be happy. When something like this happens, He cries with me.
It's true that hard things in life pass. Time keeps ticking. And eventually, if we look for it, we will find good among the ashes. But being told at the time of crisis that it's all for some greater good, dismisses the current pain and suggests the sufferer should be rejoicing rather than crying. Part of healing is acknowledging the pain of the moment.
Instead, try a simple, I'm sorry.
I never liked him anyway.
I got this a lot right after my husband left. I believe the people who said it were telling the truth, and that their intentions were to commiserate with me. (Thank you for that.) But it stings. It implies that I had poor judgement, bad taste, or both. (which may be true, but still-- don't rub it in.) This also contains hints of "It's all for the best," implying I should celebrate the shattering of my world.
To acknowledge your friend's pain in a thoughtful way, try instead, This must be really hard.
I know exactly how you feel.
This comes out when we want to express empathy. Which is a good thing! But, really? Have you been in this exact situation? And if so, were you me when it happened to you?
Because each of us has had different life experiences, an event in my life may feel very different for me than a similar event feels for you.
So what can we say when a friend is going through something very like our own painful past? Try saying, I've been through something similar. This must be really painful. This lets your friend know you've had a similar experience, without invalidating her individual suffering.
If you have never been divorced, had a still-born child, or watched your loved one suffer with cancer, don't slip into saying you know how they feel. Stick with I'm really sorry, or This must be really hard. It's even ok to say, I can imagine this must be painful.
Give me a call if there's anything I can do.
Yes- you mean well. And you're at a loss to know how to help. But here's how this translates in your friend's mind:
I'm out of here. Thank heaven I don't have to help.
Not what you meant? Then try this instead.
What is one practical thing I can do to help you?
For someone in crisis, a little thing like picking up a gallon of milk can become overwhelming. It involves realizing the milk is gone, finding shoes and car keys, driving the car, (I was so stressed once I couldn't remember how to turn on the blinker), and walking through a store full of people without bursting into tears, only to realize at the checkout that the money is still at home.
Some of the most helpful things people have done for me include returning my library books, going grocery shopping, and fielding phone calls and emails to keep people updated so I didn't have to talk to everyone myself. I've heard of other people appreciating a friend taking the kids to the park, free babysitting for doctors appointments, and driving kids to dance class.
Saying nothing at all.
What if you know your friend is having a rough time, but you're not sure if you should bring it up? Is it ok to say, "I'm really sorry your husband left you." ? Or will that push her over the edge?
Here's the rule of thumb. (Question to ponder: What do thumbs have to do with this?)
If your friend mentions it, even in passing, then it's ok for you to talk about it.
If your friend is mute on the subject, she's not ready to talk-- or have you talk-- about it.
When my daughter was in the hospital as a newborn with a severe heart condition, a friend came over. I mentioned my daughter being in the hospital, and my friend froze. Clearly, she had no idea how to approach such a difficult subject. She rushed though a 15-second babble and was out the door so fast I had to blink and wonder if she'd even been there. Then I cried. I'd mentioned my daughter because I needed to talk. My neighbors who had been planning a baby shower for me, canceled it. People at church pretended I'd never given birth. It was a hard subject, and no one knew what to do or say. But it was painful for me to have people pretend it wasn't happening.
I will forever be grateful for Polly Smith, a friend and neighbor who asked about my daughter's condition, listened as I talked and cried, and then returned my library books for me. I don't remember any of her words. She may, in fact, have said every one of the things not to say on the list above. (Well- probably not the second one.) The things I remember and love her for are being there, saying something when I mentioned my daughter, and her simple and practical help.
So while you keep these tips in mind, remember that saying something is almost always better than saying nothing at all. And when in doubt, stick with a simple I'm sorry. It's true, and it's probably what you meant all along.