Last year, my cousin Samm lost her fiancé Aaron, 27, in an unthinkable work accident. A stay-at-home mom of two young boys, she suddenly found herself thrust into the world of single motherhood without her primary support system.
Aaron's accident rattled our family to the core, and we all felt a huge responsibility to be there for Samm and her boys.
As someone who was supposed to be a bridesmaid in her upcoming wedding, I wanted more than anything to be someone she could come to when she didn't feel like keeping it all together.
Even though we live several hours apart, Samm and I have always been able to confide in each other without judgment. We've both told each other things that no one else knows. But for the first time since we became close, I found myself at a complete loss for what I could do or say to comfort her.
If you’ve ever had to support a friend or family member through a difficult time, you know it’s impossible to make everything OK (no matter how much you wish you could).
But there are things you can do and say to comfort someone going through any number of difficult situations:
- Death of person or pet
- Breakup or divorce
- Job loss
- Financial crisis
- Mental health crisis
Tiffany Lovell, a licensed behavioral therapist and mental health professional based in North Dakota, says it’s never easy to initiate a conversation with someone who is struggling because we’re afraid of saying the “wrong thing.”
“On the flip side, when someone is struggling, the feelings of isolation are often overwhelming,” Lovell says. “Mentally, those struggling feel alone, and the cycle of friends and family worried to say the ‘wrong thing’ only perpetuates that loneliness, since many people hesitate to reach out.”
I talked to several mental health professionals to find out the “right” things to say and how to comfort someone going through a hard time. Also, know that it is OK to feel unsure of how to proceed during tough times.
If you or someone you know is struggling, there is no shame in getting help — this is 2023 after all.
What should I say or do to comfort someone?
In a survey published by the Public Library of Science, a total of 372 grieving adults (mostly women) were asked which types of social support were most impactful.
Of the respondents, 64% felt most satisfied by receiving emotional support, which they generally defined as having people with whom they felt safe to grieve, who checked in on them, listened to them, and who didn’t try to hurry their grieving process.
Here are a few things you can do or say to comfort someone:
Tip #1: Address their practical needs.
Samm says that when Aaron first passed away, there was nothing anyone could say to make her feel better.
“No one could tell me he was coming back, and that’s really the only thing that could have made anything better,” she says.
To allow Samm time to process her grief and make things just a little bit easier, her sister started a GoFundMe and meal train.
“Because of everyone coming together, I was able to pay my rent for the year and have a roof over our heads, fill up my fuel tanks so we’d have heat, and so on,” she says. “It was all the acts of kindness that really helped me. Without them, I would be struggling.”
Here are a few ways you can ensure someone’s practical needs are being met:
- Offer money or gift cards
- Volunteer to watch their children or pay for a nanny
- Prepare and drop off pre-cooked meals
- Organize a meal train or food delivery service
- Offer to clean their home
- If they're struggling with job loss, offer to make introductions or otherwise help them find a job
- Pay to have their laundry sent out
- Buy them a massage or spa treatment
Things to say if you want to offer practical support:
- “What can I do for you today to make your day easier?”
- “What are your biggest money fears right now?”
- “Why don’t you let me watch your kids today so you can go to the gym?”
Tip #2: Acknowledge their struggle.
Voicing your concern to someone who seems to be struggling shows that you are paying attention and care about their wellbeing.
Heidi McBain, a licensed therapist in Texas who specializes in family and marriage therapy, says that kind of acknowledgement lets someone know they don’t need to go through their hard time alone.
“This isn’t a one-and-done contact — it needs to be ongoing,” she says. “Often, especially with grief, family and friends reach out once and that’s it, which can leave the person grieving feeling like they are alone, not important, and not supported.”
Things to say to acknowledge someone’s struggle:
- “I know you might feel alone right now, but I’m here and will help you get through this however I can.”
- “How you are feeling is valid. It is OK to not feel OK.”
- “I can see you are having a rough time. How about I grab us something to eat and come over so we can watch a movie together?”
Tip #3: Be a good listener.
Natalie Hardie, a holistic mental health practitioner and Director of NH Neuro Training in London, says that simply starting a conversation to ask how a person is doing and offering to listen without judgment can go a long way.
Even if the person isn’t ready to talk just yet, reassure them that you’ll be there if and when that time comes.
“If you do not know what to say, be honest and let them know that you are there for them,” she says.
Things to say to be a good listener:
- “I can’t imagine what you are going through and how it is making you feel, but know that I am always here for you and will not give up on you.”
- “If you need to vent to someone without judgment, I’m here to listen.”
- “If you need to talk, scream, cry, blast some music, or anything else, count me in.”
Tip #4: Let them know you care.
Hardie says positive affirmations let someone know they are loved and appreciated.
“Someone who is emotionally struggling may benefit from knowing that they are cared for and valued,” she says. “There are simple ways to do so, just by using our words.”
She suggests writing some of the person’s positive qualities on sticky notes and putting them in random places in their home to find (like the cutlery drawer or inside a shoe).
“When they unexpectedly find the note, it will be a pleasant surprise, which may lift their mood.”
But that doesn’t mean you should downplay someone’s grief by telling them to just be happy.
“What you say does not have to be profound,” she says. “It just needs to come from a place of compassion, with intention to support without judgment.”
Things to say to let someone know you care:
- “I love and care for you. Anything you need, I’ll be there.”
- “I want to support you in any way you need. You are not alone.”
- “You may not feel like it right now, but you are amazing.”
One of the ways my family showed love for Samm was with a fun video we put together for her first Mother's Day after Aaron's passing. She's a huge “Friends” fan, so we danced to the theme song and tried to make her smile on a day we knew would be especially tough. You can check it out here:
How do you comfort someone over text?
In a survey of 500 people between the ages of 18 and 34, cloud communication platform Infobip found that 75% of respondents would prefer an SMS-only phone to a voice-only phone.
One of their reasons? Because texts are less disruptive than voice calls.
Texting allows people to respond on their own terms if and when they’re ready. But how you comfort someone should come down to how well you know the person and how you usually connect with one another.
“If you have a texting relationship, then text; if you usually call, then call,” says Dr. Anandhi Narasimhan, a Los Angeles child and adult psychiatrist. “Also, if you are worried about them, you might want to try a couple different ways to make contact with them.”
So how do you comfort someone over text? Here are some ideas.
Text tip #1: Let them know you’re available.
Just telling someone you’re thinking about them can help them feel supported. Even if you usually text with your grieving loved one, a phone call can be welcome — as well as a physical visit.
“Being present with someone can be very powerful,” Dr. Narasimhan says. “A hug, holding their hand, listening to music, or doing something enjoyable to help distract that person can help.”
She also suggests going for a walk, offering to run errands, or just asking how you can be helpful.
Lovell says you don't have to say as much as you think, and no one ever expects you to “solve” their problems.
“People need space to understand and lean into the feelings they are feeling,” she says.
Text message scripts to use:
- “I’m here. Let me know if you want to talk.”
- “What are you up to? I’m free today if you want to hang out.”
- “Need someone to sit with you today? I saw there was a new movie on Netflix you might like.”
Text tip #2: Give them something to do.
Samm says having friends and family around when she’s having a hard day has made all the difference in her grieving process.
“When they notice my struggle, they come and hang out more and ask me what I need, offer to babysit so I can have time by myself,” she says.
Lovell says this shows the recipient you genuinely and deeply want to support them in the way they need to be supported.
Text message scripts to use:
- “Want to go get pedicures today?”
- “Do you need to get out of the house? I’m down for whatever you want to do.”
- “Have you tried the new restaurant down the street? I’d love to go if you are free.”
Text Tip #3: Give them permission to be a hot mess.
People who are struggling often try to put on a brave face to mask how they’re feeling. Samm says she’s been surprised how many people are critical of her grieving process.
“I feel guilty enough when I smile,” Samm says. “I don’t need someone coming up to me and saying, ‘You’re handling this way better than I would be.’ I might be smiling now, but as soon as I get home, I’m crying myself to sleep.”
Telling someone it’s OK to feel what they’re feeling can give them a break from keeping up appearances and validate their struggle.
Text message scripts to use:
- “I don’t know if anyone has told you this, but it’s OK to be a hot mess right now.”
- “You have full permission to not be OK right now. No one who loves you will judge you.”
- “You don’t need to hold it together in front of me. I’ll come over and you can scream, cry, yell…whatever you need to do.”
Text Tip #4: Let them know they’re not alone.
People who are grieving don’t often think about their “wins.” But Hardie says even just getting through a tough day is worth celebrating.
Of course, that doesn’t mean you should tell someone they’re doing great and leave them to fend for themselves. Offer encouraging or uplifting words but reassure the person you’ll be there in the moments they don’t feel strong.
Text message scripts to use:
- “So far your success rate for surviving days like these is actually 100%. You’ve got this, and I’m right behind you.”
- “You probably don’t see it, but you are doing awesome just putting one foot in front of the other. And I’m here to hold your hand for as long as you need.”
- “Do you want to go out tonight to celebrate getting through this week?”
Text Tip #5: Give them motivation to keep going.
Samm says having people around to motivate her on her hardest days has helped her get through them.
“They pull me out of bed and remind me of who I used to be and remind me that I’m strong,” she says.
Text message scripts to use:
- “Remember how much fun we had at karaoke? Do you want to go again this weekend?”
- “Do you want to come to yoga class with me on Tuesday? I can pay for a babysitter.”
- “You deserve to get away. Let’s plan a girls weekend or short trip with the kids — on me.”
What not to do or say when you’re trying to comfort someone
When someone you know is going through a hard time, it might be tempting to shower them with attention and try to jump in and be as helpful as possible. But it’s important to make sure that’s what the person wants.
Samm says that when Aaron passed, she felt overwhelmed by the number of people coming in and out of her home, even though they had good intentions.
“People were trying to clean my house and moving his stuff aside, and it really bothered me,” Samm says. “They washed his dirty clothes that I wasn’t ready to wash. Now I hold on to the last dirty outfit of his that I have and take out on occasion to smell and hold because it’s the last thing I really have with his scent on it.”
Samm says that while she appreciated the effort from family and friends, she wanted space more than anything to process what happened.
“I felt like everyone was too scared to leave me alone,” she says. “I almost felt like I was treated like a toddler who didn’t know how to take care of myself.”
Dr. Narasimhan says it’s common for people to withdraw when they’re feeling depressed or anxious, so it’s helpful to give them space to sit with their emotions.
“Figuring out a balance where they know you’ll be there when they need you can be helpful,” she says.
Samm says she’s also had to deal with comments that hurt more than they helped.
“I personally have been really hard on myself since losing Aaron,” she says. “The last thing I want to hear is how someone who isn’t in my position would handle it and how what I’m doing is wrong.”
Any kind of patronizing or belittling comment can do irreparable damage to someone who is going through a hard time. Here are a few things you should never say to comfort someone who is depressed or grieving.
1. “This too shall pass.”
2. “They're in a better place.”
3. “It could be worse.”
4. “You don't have much to complain about.”
5. “Get over it.”
6. “Everything happens for a reason.”
7. “Focus on something happy.”
Lovell says phrases like these can feel insensitive since they encourage the recipient to “hurry up” their grieving process and deny them the ability to feel their feelings.
“These types of statements and platitudes often leave people feeling unseen, unheard and not understood,” McBain agrees.
Although it may be unintentional, Hardie says emotional invalidation conveys the message that a person’s subjective emotional experience is insignificant or inaccurate. This can lead to the individual feeling confused and unable to trust their own emotions and validity of their experiences.
“This can exacerbate existing mental health conditions and symptoms whilst hindering the individual from seeking help,” she says.
Samm wanted to offer her advice for anyone dealing with a loss.
“Do what makes you happy, and don’t listen to people tell you how you should or shouldn’t grieve,” she says. “Losing someone you love is hard enough as it is. Take care of yourself and remember, you deserve to be happy.”
McBain says therapy can be a safe space where someone who is struggling can feel their feelings and process what’s going on at a deeper level — underneath the symptoms that are currently showing up in their life.
If you’re going through a tough time, BetterHelp stands out among online therapy sites, and can connect you with a licensed therapist without ever leaving your home. Here’s why we recommend them:
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