You’d think as an HSP that I’d be good at knowing what to say when someone else is hurting. But I’m always afraid that I’ll say the wrong thing.
A friend had a cancer scare recently. While I was waiting to hear from her about her test results, I thought: what do I say if she does have cancer? I had no clue. I know that I would feel the fear and despair along with her, but I wouldn’t know what to actually SAY out loud to be helpful. I asked myself, “what would I want someone to say to ME, if I was in her shoes?” but I didn’t know.
I also had a friend tell me about a tragedy that happened recently in her personal life, and I was put on the spot, awkwardly trying to think of words that would not make it worse. I just said, “I’m so sorry.” And then I said some stupid observation that I immediately regretted. I could feel myself panicking–I wanted so badly to be a good friend and say the right thing, but I didn’t know what! Then I closely observed her face, her words, and her body language, to try to gauge how she felt—whether she was ok, or about to burst out crying. I didn’t want to say nothing and have her think I didn’t care. But then, I didn’t want to ask questions and appear to pry and dredge up the sad feelings. So I asked her, “Do you want to talk about it?” It seemed like a safe thing to say.
I’ve read articles that say that the WORST thing you can say when someone tells you bad news is: “I know how you feel.” You shouldn’t say that unless you really, truly know, 100%, how they feel. I fear that I have done this in the past because I thought it was a way to relate to the person, but all it really does is move the conversation back to me, instead of my friend in need. So I try not to do that anymore.
I knew just who to ask for help with all my condolence questions. I contacted Deborah Chappa, the Condolence Coach, for her advice. She is a frequent commenter on my blog and I always appreciate her wise, gentle perspective.
The rest of the content in this post is thanks to Deborah. 🙂
She says that one of the most helpful responses to hearing sad news is to listen. Does that sound too simple or passive? It is not. Listening to someone share about a situation that frightened, threatened, or changed their life, is a gift.
While listening, however, be aware of your body language as you absorb a sad story; some gestures and expressions are supportive and some are not. Supportive body language includes a tilt of the head, eye contact, an occasional light touch on their arm or shoulder, and a general stillness or calm. If your stress response to what is being said cannot be contained, you may exhibit body language such as lack of eye contact, crossed arms, fidgeting, increasing physical distance, sighing, looking at your watch or phone, even laughing.
Respect what you can and cannot listen to! If you reach a limit (and truthfully, some people don’t know when to stop sharing or how to edit gruesome details,) you can set a boundary by saying something like: “I am so sorry. I have to leave now, but you will be in my thoughts [and prayers–if appropriate].”
Beyond quiet listening, you can express your concern with remarks such as:
“I’m so sorry.”
“How are you?”
“Would you like to talk more about it?”
“This must be a very difficult time.”
“Is there anything I can do?”
If you have had a true parallel experience, you may wish to share an observation, but do not give advice. “My oncology nurses were so kind. I hope you have a really supportive treatment team, too.”
The Condolence Coach points out that news of a miscarriage or stillbirth is not simply a medical situation. The sorrow and disappointment of the parents’ loss deserves a card or note. (Suggestions for your note can be found in her blog post: Soothing A Terrible Loss.)
If the sad news is the death of a pet, listen with care and then compose a condolence note. Your friend will be deeply touched by your effort and will probably keep, share, and re-read it. (Suggestions for your note can be found in her blog post: A Dog’s Tale.)
Other sad news could involve a divorce, job loss, business failure or bankruptcy. Even if the person sharing the news gets agitated, and uses angry or ugly language, do not join in!
Sympathetic responses should not provoke outrage or injustice, or give advice. Do not pry. Consider gentle remarks such as:
“I’m so sorry.”
“I know how hard you worked.”
“That’s a complicated situation.”
“I’ll be praying for you.”
“I’ll be sending you positive vibes.”
A compassionate response to sad news does not demand that you offer a solution or strategy.
After exposure to an intense conversation, an HSP can feel sad or anxious. Take some deep breaths; use a qigong centering practice to cleanse and contain your energy by lifting your arms over your head, palms face down over the crown of your head, and slowly swing them down over the front of your body until they come to rest on your lower belly. Repeat this three times, continuing to breathe in a full but relaxed manner.
Small acts of compassion matter!
As Deborah says:
Growing in sensitivity is NOT ‘regression’ for an HSP, but instead a healthy channeling for compassionate good works.
Thank you so much to Deborah Chappa, the Condolence Coach, for the content for most of this post. Please visit her wonderful blog about dealing with all kinds of difficult life situations and follow her on Twitter.
Photo credit: © Mylene Bressan for openphoto.net
Kelly, this is such a great topic for a post. As an HSP, I find that other people’s anxiety, sadness and so forth is so clear to me that I can get uncomfortable being with them, and I think that creates a desire to “say something that will help” — of course to help them, but also to help myself. Unfortunately, the things that help me are not necessarily helpful to the other person, and I need to be aware of the difference. For example, I might start to think of ways that the problem isn’t as bad as the other person seems to think — but it’s not fair or helpful to minimize and trivialize another’s experience, especially as I most likely don’t know enough to judge.
When I have had health problems, I have gotten a lot of questions that seemed to come from a desire to find out what I had “done wrong,” so that the questioners could feel like they would be able to avoid the same problem. I try very hard not to fall into that same pattern, because it is really distressing to be on the receiving end of that!
Also, when I have had a loss or a challenging problem, I didn’t want other people to “say something that would help” in the sense of solving the problem or making it better. I just wanted my friends and family to quietly support me with their presence. The suggestions you list in this episode are great for that. I particularly love the idea of making an observation that is not a comparison, but yet lets the other person know you might possibly have helpful information and advice — if they want to ask for it. (Your example is commenting on the oncology team.)
Thanks Karen, I’m glad you liked this episode. Yes–I think a non-helpful thing is trying to “fix” the problem. For example, I had some not-great health symptoms recently and it was annoying when people tried to “figure out” why I had them. (“Maybe you are allergic to XYZ?” “Maybe it’s stress?” “Maybe you should try XYZ diet?”) This is something I need to be better at when I’m trying to help people because I think I do this in an attempt to be helpful. It sounds like we have had some of the same realizations!
Thanks for your comment!
Regarding your friend’s cancer scare, that is a tricky situation for anybody. Fortunately, I think HSP’s are the best people to turn to during a difficult or emotional situation. I would approach the situation by putting myself in her shoes. I think that initially, I would feel extremely emotional and need someone to comfort me. Let her know that you’re there for her, and encourage her to express her emotions. I think that expressing her initial grief is so important because it has to be done in order to move onto the next step. Simply asking, “how are you feeling?” and listening can go a long way.
After the initial emotional shock is over, I would want someone to encourage me to keep fighting the cancer even if I felt like giving up. It’s important to keep her spirits up and let her know that things aren’t over yet. If you act like it’s over, so will she. In this phase, I would also want logical ways for me to overcome the cancer. Perhaps buying your friend a book on superfood smoothies and then making them together would be a positive thing. In my mind, this could lift her spirits and benefit her health. And doing it together could make it fun!
Thanks Tyler, those are great suggestions!! It is hard for me to imagine how I would feel if I was diagnosed with cancer. I just don’t know. But your suggestions are great!!
Your suggestions are very good, especially listening and tuning in to the other person.
I lost my fiancé to murder 15 years ago (shortly after 9/11 and just after a move from Japan back to the U.S. and transfer to a new office), and no one, no one was helpful in their responses to me except one grief counselor that I found after months of searching. My half-sister told me “He’s in a better place.” Not better for me! That was NOT helpful. She meant well, but it was like a slap in the face. Other family members were mostly silent. Not a phone call, a card or letter, nothing. I know people feel inadequate to express “the right thing” in times of tragedy, but saying nothing speaks volumes, too, and it’s not good. I felt like I had to handle this terrible burden myself, and I ended up telling strangers about it, which was probably more than they wanted to know. I found one support group, but it was more politically oriented than helpful for grief support, but it was something. Griefnet.org was helpful, but then I was mired in even more tragic stories than my own (such as the young woman who had lost two husbands to murder). How I would have loved to have someone listen to me. A couple of friends did so when they came from far away to visit, but I had no one in my daily life to help. I am somewhat surprised that I made it through this period.
Thank you for your comment and I am so sorry for your loss. It is difficult to know what to say to someone who is in so much pain, so some people might say nothing. I have actively tried to learn how to become better at talking to people who have experienced loss because I know it will come up…and because I know I was bad at it. I think it is a good skill for people to learn. I’m so sorry you didn’t have much support at all when you needed it. I am glad you made it through.