Actually, Everything Might NOT Be Okay.

When people go through very difficult times— death of a loved one, abuse, terminal diagnosis, divorce, infertility, job loss, etc. etc. etc., they are often subject to a whole host of platitudes that not only don’t make their hurt go away… but sometimes even makes it worse. 

Well-meaning people may want to say something to alleviate the pain and simply don’t know what to say. It can be very uncomfortable to just bear witness to the pain of another person in silence, so the predictable lines come tumbling out of our mouths without even much thought. 

Here are things not to say when someone experiences trauma or hardship. And it doesn’t help now to kick yourself if you’ve already used them; we all mess up and it takes a lot of work to be a conscientious human. But to be more thoughtful going forward, avoid the following: 

  • “God needed another angel.” This is meant to be a consolation to grieving parents usually. And regardless of whether or not a person believes that humans turn into angels after death, the comment stings because of the implication that there is a divine being out there just plucking young lives from this earth to bolster the heavenly choir or somesuch. It’s not consoling to tell someone that God needed the life of someone more than they did.
  • “Everything happens for a reason.” This one really bothers me because of the unspoken implications, again. Tell a child survivor of sexual abuse that it happened for a reason. Tell this to the victims of racially-motivated murder. One is free to speculate all they want about whether or not our lives are predetermined and that there is a script we are forced to live out. But these speculations are best kept to oneself in the face of others’ pain. It would be true to say “Good can come out of all things”… but no one typically wants to hear this in the immediate aftermath of tragedy. That’s definitely a save-it-for-later comment.
  • “It’s going to be okay.” Look. This is probably the most common response you hear and it does have utility if someone’s ice cream falls off its cone and you can assure them of a speedy replacement. But for the bigger, deeper, or more existential issues, it actually might NOT be okay. Life might even get more difficult! And it does not usually inspire confidence in a hurting person if you are insisting on something that they can not bring themselves to believe in the moment. 
  • “It could be worse…” People are allowed to say this to themselves. (A practice which I will gently challenge if someone is in therapy with me.) But it is almost never helpful for a person to essentially be given the message that they “shouldn’t” feel sad or upset just because they aren’t missing a limb or in a concentration camp, for example. 
  • “Cheer up.” More often than not, people offer this because they are uncomfortable with the pain of someone else. It can be awkward to see someone cry. And it doesn’t feel good to be with someone who is depressed or sad. But our discomfort should not be reason to dismiss the hurt of someone else by telling them that they need to somehow contrive to change their mood. You can encourage cheer if you have a plan to help that. But don’t insist on it. Learn to tolerate the discomfort of bearing witness to pain.

So what are some helpful things to say and do? Try some variations of the following:

“It won’t hurt this bad forever.”

“I’m with you.”

“This is really hard.”

“This was unfair.”

“Life is really painful sometimes, especially when we don’t understand why.”

“I would feel really sad too.”

“Would you like company or would you like to be alone?”

“How can I support you?”

“It’s okay to cry.”

“We will get through this.”

Some gifted people with a certain closeness to the hurting person can offer the right kind of humor (use wisely!) that helps someone. Or can simply and silently hug, hold or scratch the back of a hurting person. Physical touch might be the only communication needed.

For the rest of us, the emphasis is simply on joining with someone in pain. Not just observing them from the top of the pit to say “I’m sorry you feel that way.” It’s not a “them issue” that you must endure. Instead the best response to adopt is one that gives the message that their pain is okay with you. That you won’t flinch and look away or try to push them out of it. That they are not alone. That is the most healing thing you can offer…