Empathy: What to Say When You Don’t Know What to Say…


“I know exactly how you feel….”

No, you don’t.  Even if you’ve experienced the very same thing….it’s different.  You aren’t me.  You don’t have my personality or my support systems or my coping strategies (or lack thereof).  You don’t know what it reminds me of or makes me fear, and you don’t have the same feelings or hopes going forward.  We may have the same plot, but it’s not the same story…

So how can we help?  As caring and connected friends, family members, colleagues or classmates, we are often faced with the loss, chaos, tragedy and sadness of others…and we want to help!  We are genuinely hurting for them and are caring human beings that aim to comfort, to heal, to fix.  We share our own experiences in hopes of showing empathy, progress or finding common ground. We turn to comforting phrases (time heals all wounds….) and actions (casseroles, pies and greeting cards) in hopes of feeling we have somehow helped; but the truth is, there often isn’t “comfort” to be found for us or for them.  There isn’t a “reason” that makes sense and comfort food brings little comfort.  Don’t get me wrong….kindnesses will always be remembered, no question. Continue showing you care, but I also give you the gift of what to SAY…

When we find ourselves hoping to help, there is a powerful way to comfort.  In Psychology, it’s called “validation”…and it is the heart and soul of the counselling process.  It is the foundation from which we can build.  It opens us to our vulnerabilities and in that we find our resilience.  Everyone else calls it empathy.  But empathy isn’t always knowing exactly how someone feels in any given situation…it’s recognizing what it must be like to feel that way….even if it isn’t me or it’s never happened to me.  It’s getting that you might not get it, but you care about THAT person, so you care all the same.  It’s being totally and completely present with that person while they hurt.  It sounds like this:  “I’m sorry this happened….it must be so difficult for you.”  In a genuine, thoughtful way.

Yessssssss……it really is.   When a person hears this type of phrase they find relief….someone understands that this. just. sucks.  It’s hard.  Thank you…that’s what I needed someone to understand.  I don’t need a solution.  There likely isn’t one.  I don’t need to make meaning or try to find the “reasons” everything happens for.  I’m not made whole by similar situations or advice.  Memories and music and musings are meaningless, when what I really want to hear is “this must be so hard” followed by, ” I cannot fix this for you, but I can be with you while you go through it.” I finally feel heard.  My heart connects with yours and says, “ya, you totally get it.” Even if you totally don’t get it, you get that it’s hard and it’s not fair and it sucks and it’s confusing and you’re sorry that I have to go through it.  I clearly hear that I am not alone (which is the worst part…not just physically alone, but alone in the understanding of what it’s like to……..)  Those things help.  Every time. Trust me.

It seems to simple right?  Just “be” (normally and in the routine of life) with them as they go on the journey of grief or learning or change?   Say, “I’m sorry that happened….that must be really hard for you” when the time is right (silence is golden also…..never underestimate the power of quiet).  Be and say these things over and over in various forms….validate that whatever it is, it’s hard.  Let them know that you are here to listen.  Let them know that you cannot imagine what it would be like.  Tell them if they ever want to talk about it, you’ll try to understand and help with whatever they ask for.  Leave them alone if they want to be alone.  Stay with them if they want someone near. Find the balance between the normal and the new normal…

Even with the best of intentions (perspective, faith, hope, grace, ?), the following statements are not helpful……yet.  Someday, yes (that’s why they are so popular and comforting to the rest of us), but not just yet:

Everything happens for a reason

Time heals all wounds

When one door closes, another opens

I know exactly how you feel

You think that’s bad, one time I…..

It’ll all work out for the best, you’ll see

Something better is coming along

This is actually a blessing in disguise

They are in a better place

You’re strong….you’ll be fine

Instead try the following as you see fit:

I’m sorry this is happening

This must be so hard for you

I can only imagine what you are going through

I’m here if you’d like to talk

What’s the hardest part?

It is hard when it just doesn’t make sense

I will be here with you as you go through this

On a final note, we often say “Let me know if I can help” which is thoughtful.  However, if someone is struggling, they often don’t know what to ask for nor do they want to burden others.  It can be easier for them if you give specific suggestions as to things they might need.  Food is good, time is better. Both is perfect.

If you have a genuine heart and the right intention, they’ll know…



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