If it hasn’t happened to you yet, there will be a day when you enter a situation and you have no idea what to say and people will be looking to you for support and hope.
Often times it’s when others are facing tragedy.
You feel helpless, Words are worthless. There is nothing to change or fix what has happened.
So… What do you say?
When you are supporting someone through a tragic and difficult situation there can be a lot of pressure to say just the right thing. But often in those times, there is nothing you could do or say that would take away the pain, hurt and tragedy. So what do you say?
You don’t need a degree to support those who are suffering. You just need to be kind and focus on the other person, because supporting others is about their needs, not satisfying your need to be helpful
So here are 5 things you can say when you don’t know what to say.
1. Validate their experience
Validating someone’s pain, struggle or discomfort communicates to the person. “I hear you, I see you.” Some feel that to support someone it means to point out how to improve, change or fix their problem. That is not supportive, that is problem-solving.
Some believe that they need to fully understand the issue before being able to support others. They ask lots of questions trying to understand for themselves. This is not supportive, that is focused on your need to understand.
You can simply say “ “oh my goodness, sounds like you are going through a lot. That must be very difficult.”
Showing empathy first, and not trying to fix or figure out what happened.
2. Acknowledge the person’s strengths
Oftentimes in tragedy people try to reason. You hear things like “if only I did this differently…”
The common phrase “hindsight is 20/20” is very true. People start judging their actions based on their new understanding, not on their knowledge at the time.
By acknowledging the person’s strengths you are offering a different narrative of their circumstances. You bring hope and encourage them to see beyond their current struggle.
Saying something like “You are a very caring person, and you have been working really hard to keep going!”
3. Offer support that does not require the person to initiate and that doesn’t add burden to yourself
When we are supporting others there is often one of two conversations in your mind.
“I want to help and do everything for this person” or
“ I already have so much on my plate, but I SHOULD do something more.”
Fixing or doing this FOR the person is often not helpful in the end and supporting out of guilt is burdening yourself and often a sign of compassion fatigue.
So.. we often say things like“Call me if you need anything, really anything, and I’m therefore you.”
But honestly telling the person, “Call me if you need anything.” is often considered an empty offer and will likely never be acted upon. It’s putting the responsibility of reaching out onto the person who is struggling. And overwhelmed people tend to isolate and not want to be a burden to others.
As a supporter offer what you feel you are able to do and ask for permission, don’t wait for them to ask you.
“Hey, I have a busy afternoon, but could I check in with you later this evening”?
And if they say no, respect their answer.
4. Be Silent
Silent support is highly undervalued.
When someone is facing tragedy or loss they are often overwhelmed.
Mentally, they are trying to process the immense amount of information. They’re emotionally flooded and it can be very difficult to wade through everything they are experiencing.
So adding to the “noise” may not be helpful. Being present, but silence can be very uncomfortable for you, but it may be very soothing for the person. If gives them room to process and possibly talk and express uninterrupted.
Stay silent long enough you and will be surprised what it said by others. When you don’t know what to say, it’s okay and best to say nothing at all.
5. Give encouragement
“you are very kind and giving. Our community is really lucky to have you.”
Acknowledging the person’s strengths as encouragement is often rejected by those who are struggling.
It can be so difficult to speak through the negativity that is happening in their mind, but once you do there is often hope and breakthrough Encouragement is all about the person who is struggling. It’s not stories of your experiences or someone you once knew. It focuses on them, their giftings, strengths and what God has in store for them.
During tragic times when you don’t know what to say, we quickly revert to something that is familiar; our own stories, and the desire to fix their situation. Silence becomes awkward for us and sometimes find ourselves babbling on. This is meeting our own needs at that moment.
Keep the focus on the other person’s needs by ensuring the person feels heard, validated and built-up and asking permission to meet practical needs and offering hope.