What Should You Say to People When They're Hurting?


I suspect that you know at least one person who is suffering. Do you struggle with what to say to your friends and co-workers when they are hurting? Do you ever pull back from people when they're going through hard times? Do you ever say stuff that you later regret?

This Brutal Season Impacts Us All.

I felt compelled to address the suffering that we've been experiencing as a nation, as individuals, and as families. We’ve been through five major hurricanes, that's the highest number of hurricanes since 2010 and when you look at the accumulated cyclone energy (ACE) this is the highest it's been since 2005. This is potentially the costliest season on record with a preliminary total of over $224 billion in damages.

In the aftermath of Irma, development on the islands of Barbuda and St. Martin have been described as being 95% destroyed. 1400 people are feared homeless in Barbuda. Most of Puerto Rico is still without power! So far, Irma has resulted in at least 132 deaths. And, so far, Hurricane Maria has caused 78 deaths and Hurricane Nate has caused 34. We're up to 306 deaths so far this season. People are suffering.

Then Las Vegas happened.

Incomprehensibly, the gunman killed 58 people and injured 489. The news continues to show us graphic images that impact us more than we know.

It's not unusual for people following episodes like this to have dreams or feel like they were actually there after watching the clips repeatedly. What do you say to someone who has suffered tremendous loss? What do we say to each other? I've found in my 30 years of being a family practice doc and doing disasters around the world that people tend to make one of two mistakes when tragedy strikes. They either pull back and avoid the discomfort altogether or they say dumb stuff.

Heather’s Story

When our kids were in school my wife and I were very involved up at the high school. One of the kids that I met, a girl named Heather Meadows, was one of my all time favorites. She'd lettered in choir, she was in fast pitch, she was in drama, she was voted the most unique in the Central Kitsap High School Yearbook and that was unique in a good way, I would say unique in a great way.

She was the school mascot, she received an academic scholarship to Olympic College, and she planned to attend Washington State University. Everybody loved Heather. On March 13, 2005 Heather was heading home from Seattle when she was killed by an intoxicated driver who was so drunk that he made a U-turn across five lanes of traffic and headed the wrong way on Interstate 5. He hit her car head on and Heather died at the scene. She was only 20-years-old. I saw the car. She didn't have a chance.

The man who hit her was a repeat offender who had been arrested previously for a DUI. He broke his leg and was sentenced to six years in prison for vehicular homicide, he would have the chance to start over. Heather did not. Her dad, Greg, has become one of my very best friends and we've gone on a number of sailboat expeditions together. Sailboats aren't quick so it makes for a good amount of time together, sometimes with words and sometimes without. In fact, we have a rule on the boat, “You don't have to say anything if you don't have anything to say”. We have a lot of time to ponder.

On one trip Greg shared with me some of the things that people said to him after Heather died. One that I'll never forget was the person that said, "Well you know, Greg, God can use your daughter's death to help someone else." His response from the depths of his soul was, "God can use somebody else's daughter, he didn't have to use ours." Good point. Greg didn't say it out loud, he held it in.

If You Open Your Mouth Remember This

In August 2016, Holly Weeks wrote a delightful article in the Harvard Business Review about what not to say to a stressed out co-worker and a lot of that applies here to people who are suffering.1

  • Avoid cliches. It just doesn't help to walk up to somebody that's suffering and say, "Well, God helps those who help themselves.” (Which, by the way, is nowhere to be found in the bible anyway).
  • No oneupmanship. It's not helpful to come up and say, "Well, you think your situation's bad. Well, my uncle had the tumor the size of a small elephant in his right leg, it was horrible." That's not helpful.
  • No minimizing. "Aw, you'll get over it, don't worry about it."
  • Avoid moralizing. coming up to somebody and saying, "Well, there must be a reason."
  • Avoid lengthy commiseration. Coming alongside somebody and saying, "Yeah, I know this sucks. I don't know how you're ever going to recover, it'll change everything. Your job's never going to be the same, your family will never be the same, your friends won't be the same. It's just going to be miserable, you're never going to ..." That's not helpful.

Why Do We Feel Compelled to Speak?

I’ve found that oftentimes people feel compelled to say something to try to fix the situation. Perhaps that's because they're trying to put it in a neat little box so they can deal with it. In the process they feel compelled to say something and it frequently ends up being inappropriate. It puts people that are suffering in a very difficult situation because in the midst of their need they're the ones that need to become the strong ones and scrape together enough kindness and compassion to not strike back. In such situations, victims struggle to remember that people have good intentions and they just say stupid stuff.


Speaking With Your Actions

What should you say when your friends are suffering? Nothing. Be willing not to have any answers. Be willing not to have any words. Don't run away, be willing to be uncomfortable and experience their pain. If you have a friend who’s hurting, just be together. Go and sit next to them. If you can’t be there send them a note or a short video to let them you that you are with them. Don’t try to solve the problem. Focus on the person.

My buddy, Jeff Secrest, sends me random texts occasionally just to remind me that he's on my team. He'll send me a text like, "I care about you," or, "Thinking about you, buddy." It's reassuring to know that I have friends that have my back and care about me. That can be really helpful for somebody when they're going through a difficult time. Be willing to stand in the pain without any answers. Just be together.

Our society's a bit unrealistic. We give people about three weeks to get over stuff. Perhaps that's because our news media rapidly moves on to the next big thing. It takes much longer than that to grieve. Remember that even after time passes there are some of us who have suffered wounds that will never heal.

Just be -- together.

Do it regularly.

Do it spontaneously.

Do it for a long time.

Just be together.

  1. https://hbr.org/2016/08/823-yyt-series-how-to-help-a-stressed-out-colleague ↩︎