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.