What Not To Say When Someone You Love Is Hurting


Devastating trials come in all different forms and durations: Depression. Job loss. Financial difficulty. Cancer. Death of a loved one. Prodigal child. Divorce.

I’ve experienced many, and on a couple different occasions, I’ve experienced more than one significant event simultaneously, just adding to the intensity of the pain and despair. Some would encourage me to take one day at a time when truly, I was praying for help to successfully navigate five minutes at a time.

Both professionally as a neuropsychologist, but personally as one who has experienced my share of hardship, I’ve come to realize what when tragedy hits, others, including well-intentioned friends and family, often don’t know what to say. After being a clinical neuropsychologist for over 20 years, hardly anything surprises me anymore, but earlier in my career, I was surprised by some of the comments that I heard people say in response to others’ suffering.

I’ve been on the other side of the situation as well: finding out that a friend’s child was incarcerated, or their spouse had an affair, or a friend lost a child to a drug overdose, and being so dumbfounded and without adequate words to console or convey the pain in my heart for them. How do you truly relate to their pain if you’ve never walked their path? And how do you express your concern in a way that comforts while avoiding platitudes or just fills the empty space with hollow sounding syllables that helps no one?

 “The tongue can bring death or life; those who love to talk will reap the consequences.” (Proverbs 18:21)

In walking alongside patients who are suffering through devastating circumstances, as well as speaking from my own experience having previously gone through depression and a prolonged bout with pneumonia, or as a caregiver of a spouse who has been diagnosed on more than one occasion with cancer, would you allow me to share what is and isn’t helpful? Because sometimes we just don’t know.

-Please don’t say: “You’ll learn something from this.” When you’re in the middle of heartache, you don’t care about learning from the pain. You just want the pain to end. If a lesson comes in the end, that’s just bonus.

 -Please don’t say: “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.” When you’re holding on with all you’ve got, sometimes praying just to make it through the next five minutes, it’s not a goal to become stronger but rather, just to survive.

-Please don’t say: “Someone else has it worse off than you.” This is the case for just about everyone in the universe, but bringing that to one’s attention doesn’t do anything to alleviate the pain in our own suffering, and just makes someone feel like you lack compassion and empathy, and that you don’t care.

 -Please don’t say: “This too shall pass.” In the midst of despair, logically we already know this, but each day we arise hoping that today will be the day. So unless you can tell us when things will take a turn for the better, it’s better not to say this.
-Please don’t say: “This must be because you have unconfessed sin in your life.” This statement just serves to heap guilt, shame, and condemnation on someone who is already feeling discouraged and perhaps hopeless. Scripture says, “There is therefore, now, no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). So rather than instill guilt and shame, share His love, mercy, and hope.

-Please don’t tell the horror stories of others you know who have also suffered through similar situations. Both when I was struggling with a 12-week bout with pneumonia, as well as the times when my husband was being treated for cancer, it was amazing how many people shared with us the horror stories of every friend or distant relative they had who had been misdiagnosed or died from pneumonia or cancer. Rather than encourage us, it only served to invoke fear, doubt, and discouragement—quite the opposite of the encouragement, inspiration, and hope that we needed at the time.

-Please don’t say: “You’ll be better off for it in the long run.” First of all, you have no way of knowing that. Secondly, when you’re in the midst of a crisis, the greatest concern is getting through the crisis as quickly with as little fallout as possible—not thinking about how a divorce, or bankruptcy, or death of a loved one might possibly make one’s life better (if that’s even possible!

Kind words are like honey–sweet to the soul and healthy for the body.
(Proverbs 16:24)

Knowing what not to say is more than half the battle. So what is helpful to say?

Pray with me and for me when I don’t even know what to pray for myself.

 –“I love you.” When you’re going through a difficult time, you need to know that despite your circumstances, despite your mistakes, that you are still loved.

“We’ll get through this together.” In the difficult, devastating times in life, your emotions make you feel alone in this world and it helps to know that at least one person is willing to still by you and see you through to the other side of the valley.

 –“You are strong.” Rough patches test your physical strength, your mental fortitude, and your emotional tenacity. Sometimes you need the reminder that despite what your emotions tell you, you ARE strong—just hang in there.

“You are brave and courageous.” Going through life’s difficult situations requires courage and bravery when in reality we often feel meek and afraid. Sometimes we just need someone to have confidence in us when our own self-confidence is wavering—it’s often just the thing that can undergird us with the fortitude to push through the fear and keep going.

“This is hard, but you’ve made it through every other hard situation that’s been thrown at you. You’ll make it through this too!” The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. Sometimes we just need to be reminded that even though we are in a difficult spot, we’ve made it through other difficult spots before, and we can do it again!

“Dear children, let’s not merely say that we love each other; let us show the truth by our actions”

(1 John 3:18).

As a neuropsychologist, I constantly study human behavior. I watch what people do, as well as what they don’t do. I listen to what they say, and what they don’t say. So often we speak in order to ease our own discomfort in the weighty silence, and do more damage in the process, where a well-timed wordless gesture might mean so much more:

 -Hold me and let me weep until I’m out of tears.

-Dry my tears.
-Hold my hand.
-Don’t make me be alone, or conversely, if I want to be alone, check on me frequently.
-Offer a hug or a squeeze on the shoulder.
-Deliver a cheerful bouquet of flowers to bring a bright spot to an otherwise dark situation.
-Listen quietly to me share my pain, without trying to solve my situation.
-Offer to walk with me—the fresh air will do me good.
-Take me to coffee.
-Going to the grocery store, dry cleaner, or drug store? Offer to pick up a few items for me as well.
-Do your kids go to the same school as mine? Offer to pick mine up after school and bring them home for me.
-Fixing a casserole? Make a double recipe, and bring half over to alleviate the burden of meal preparation for me one night.
-If illness is an issue, offer to go with me to doctor’s appointments. There is nothing worse than going alone.
-Stop by and pick up a load or two of laundry and return it washed, dried, and folded in the next day or two on your way to or from work.
-Pick the children up one afternoon to allow a couple hours to take a nap, run errands, converse privately with doctors/attorneys/teachers/family members, etc.

In as early as Genesis 2:18, God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone…” In difficult times especially, we need each other. But it helps to have some guidance regarding what to say, what not to say, and things we can do which lend practical help to those who are suffering because if we’ve never gone through the same or similar situation, experience has not yet been our teacher.

As I’ve spoken to others who are going through various trials, I’ve heard of other comments that weren’t helpful. I’d love it if you would share your own examples of either unhelpful OR helpful comments or actions in the comments in an effort to educate others who truly want to be better equipped to “weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice…”

 Because of Him, #HopePrevails!
This post originally appeared at DrMichelleBengtson.com.


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Michelle Bengtson
Dr. Michelle Bengtson is a board certified clinical neuropsychologist with more than 20 years of experience in the diagnosis and treatment of medical and mental disorders in children, adults, and seniors. She has been in private practice for more than a decade of that time. Michelle is also a woman—a wife, mother and friend. She has experienced her share of trouble and trials and knows the pain of losing someone she loves as well as the despair that can follow trauma or illness. You can follow her blog at DrMichelleBengtson.com.