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What not to say when you don’t know what to say

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“I don’t know what to say to her.” At 37 years of age Patricia’s best friend was dying of cancer. Patricia stayed at her bedside in the hospital during her last days. The shared moments were limited to short interactions and gestures of care in silence, just sporadically interrupted by the visits of family, nurses and the oncologist.

Patricia wanted to do the right thing and be there for her friend. She was trying to find her voice in a situation that left her speechless. Between the sadness and anger caused by losing her friend way too soon Patricia asked the questions that we would all have: What to say, when you don’t know what to say.

 

The real matter behind this question has nothing to do with words. Patricia was searching for a way to express her support and love to a dear friend in a crucial moment.

She called me because I am a clinical psychologist, and apparently that makes me an expert in knowing what to say in tough situations. The truth is that I did not respond as a psychologist, but as a friend and someone who has been in that same situation, attending the process of dying without words. I also responded as a former hospice volunteer, that gave me some specific training on the subject. Also, my experience as a therapist has shown me that there are certain moments in which words are overrated. Death is just one of them.

When a person faces any painful experience like a physical illness, depression, anxiety, discrimination, a breakup or being made redundant, words are not necessarily the first thing needed. Receiving empathy, company, love and support are much more vital. True empathy is rooted in understanding, presence, and commitment. If you want to convey true empathy, turn over the floor and start listening, give a hand instead of an opinion.

During the COVID-19 lock-down in March 2020 many of my clients referred not feeling taken care of by their loved ones and even closest friends. Often, what they said did more harm than good.

Let me tell you what they told me, in their words and experiences.

The following list is not meant to make anybody feel guilty but to raise awareness about the effect of some of the most common phrases we use when we genuinely do not know what to say.

When I am feeling down and you say…..

·         Don’t cry.” … I feel I must swallow my tears when I really need a should to cry on. Give me a hug or give me your hand, so that I can embrace my tears.

·         Don’t worry.” … I feel insecure, because truth is, I am worried and afraid. Tell me you understand my fear, so that I don’t have to feel so alone in it.

·          It’s not that big of a deal.” … I feel ashamed that I even said anything, am I really just making fuss? Please understand that this is a big deal for me, even if it’s not rational.

·          Don’t be so negative.” …I feel scolded like a misbehaved child. Please, make it OK for me to be negative for today, I will feel better tomorrow.

·          At least it’s not (anything worse).” …. I feel guilty and ungrateful with life. Give me some time and I will see the silver lining, just bear with me until I see the light again.

·         You must be strong.” …. I feel it’s my obligation to tough it out, although I really want to acknowledge my vulnerability and exhaustion. Gently remind me of my strengths and I will use them when I feel ready.

·         This is so terrible.” …. I worry that I must protect you from my pain. I don’t want you to worry about be. It’s nice that you recognize the issue, but please, don’t scare me even more.

·         I am here for what you need”… but then you don’t call me again, I wonder if I can really count on you. Asking for help is hard, just take care of some basics, it helps a lot.

·         You should…” … I feel pressured and even more tired. I don’t need more advise, but your emotional support. Sit with me in silence and I will find my own solutions.

·         ….many things but never stop to listen…. I won’t have the strength to interrupt. Give me time and space to find my words and listen to what I have to say, whether you agree or not.

·         I know exactly how you feel.” … I ask myself if you really do. Ask me how I feel, as I am desperate to be heard, help me share my experience, and make sense of what is going on inside of me.

 

If you want to be there for someone in pain, stop searching for words. Don’t pretend to know, just try to understand. Get out of your head and connect with your heart. It takes some courage, but it’s worth it.

Brene Brown puts it best when she says: “Empathy is not connecting to an experience. Empathy is connecting to the emotions underpinning the experience”.

 

The Author

Eva Katharina Herber is a Clinical Psychologist and Expert in Positive Psychology at Sinews Multilingual Therapy Institute in Madrid. She helps her clients through times of pain and loss by acknowledging the process of grief, accepting what no longer is, practising mindfulness self-compassion and finding meaning and hope throughout the experience.

If you need a space to process difficult emotions and a nudge in the right direction, contact her at www.sinews-online.com

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