“Well, it’s the good kind of cancer. You will be better soon.”
Those are the words Elizabeth Gillette heard from some people when she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma when she was only 21 years old. She would need several rounds of chemotherapy followed by radiation treatment. She was terrified — and shocked to hear anyone refer to her cancer as good.
These “responses effectively closed me off to having any further conversation with them because I knew they didn’t understand how scared I was feeling,” said Gillette, LCSW, now an attachment-focused therapist, who specializes in working with individuals and couples as their families grow.
“You can always try again.”
Those are the words Gillette’s clients have heard from family and friends after revealing that they’d suffered a miscarriage.
“God doesn’t give us anything we can’t handle.”
This is another unhelpful response. It “implies that the person must handle the situation well and if they are having a tough time, it must mean something about them and their abilities,” Gillette said.
“At least you have your health,” “At least they’re no longer in pain,” “I know how you feel, I’ve lost ______. Or “I’m dealing with this hard thing too.”
These are other examples of phrases that can be hurtful, according to Laura Torres, LPC, a holistic mental health counselor who loves supporting people to navigate anxiety, stress, self-worth issues, relationship challenges, and life transitions.
When something terrible happens to someone, we yearn to be supportive. We yearn to say the right things. But often we just blurt out inappropriate statements (like those above) and clichés including “Everything happens for a reason,” or “Of course, it’ll be OK; don’t worry.”
In trying to be helpful, we say things we think will be positive, encouraging and optimistic, but end up coming across as callous. Sometimes, we try to distract the person or shift the focus to ourselves, Torres said. That doesn’t help either.
Sometimes we don’t say anything at all, she said.
We think that if we acknowledge the pain someone is experiencing, we’ll only make it worse. We also turn to clichés because we’re uncomfortable with pain. “I think our ability to be with someone else’s pain and vulnerability is a direct reflection of our ability to be with our own pain,” Torres said. “If we feel shame around our own tenderness, we are going to try to fix or avoid it in others.”
Whatever our reasons, any time we try to reassure someone, fix the situation, or ignore it altogether, “it can feel dismissive and invalidating,” Torres said. We send the message that their pain is not OK. It is “not welcome in the context of this relationship.”
We essentially tell the person: “I don’t want to hear that you’re sad right now; let’s focus on something happier, because this is making me uncomfortable,” Gillette said. We essentially tell them that we don’t want to have a real conversation about their experience, she said.
We also send another damaging message: You better hold it together. Which is exactly what people try to do. They try to deal with their pain and heartache on their own. They try to push through. They do this so the people around them can feel more comfortable, Torres said. “As you can imagine, this can add layers of emotion, [such as] resentment, sadness, frustration, and guilt on top of the initial pain, which is why I think we often don’t reach out for support.”
Offering genuine support doesn’t have to be complicated. These tips can help.
Just listen. “When we are struggling, what we really need is to feel seen, heard, and know that we are not alone,” Torres said. “We need someone to just sit there and be with us in our pain rather than trying to make it go away.”
In fact, being present with a person’s pain is the most loving thing we can do, Gillette said.
Torres shared this poignant quote from Love Warrior by Glennon Doyle Melton, which speaks to this: “We think our job as humans is to avoid pain, our job as parents is to protect our children from pain, and our job as friends is to fix each other’s pain…people who are hurting don’t need Avoiders, Protectors, or Fixers. What we need are patient, loving witnesses. People to sit quietly and hold space for us. People to stand in helpless vigil to our pain.”
Honor their experience. According to Gillette, you might say something like: “I am so sorry you are experiencing this. I want you to know I am here and will continue to be here. I will check on you in a couple of days to see how you’re doing.” She noted that this honors the person’s experience, instead of dismissing it or trying to change it.
Anticipate their needs. Asking someone what they need might make them even more overwhelmed, so it’s important to try to anticipate their needs, and meet them. For instance, when tragedy strikes, people usually aren’t thinking about day-to-day needs, such as grocery shopping or dinner or laundry or who’s taking the kids to school.
According to Gillette, you might say: “I would love to cook dinner for your family. Would it be better to come by on Saturday or Sunday to drop it off on the porch for you?”
Seek out additional resources. If you’d like to read more on this topic, Gillette loves the book There Is No Good Card for This: What to Say and Do When Life is Scary, Awful, and Unfair to People You Love by Kelsey Crowe and Emily McDowell.
When tragedy strikes, it’s understandable that we don’t know what to say. Even therapists get tongue-tied. “I know that I have held back or turned to clichés when I’m stuck in trying to say the right or perfect thing to support someone,” Torres said. And that’s OK.
The individuals who made unhelpful comments to Gillette weren’t trying to hurt her. It had nothing to do with them not caring. They also were shocked and scared, and in their distress insensitive words stumbled out. Which Gillette now understands.
“There is no perfect thing to say that will make things better,” Torres said. “All we have to do is show up and be there with our love and tenderness.”