Someone discloses they’re having a rough time or they’ve had some bad news. How do some people normally respond?
- “You’ll get over it”.
- “It could be worse”
- “That happened to me”
Maybe we’ve all done that at some point. But is that really the best way to help?
Sometimes we shy away from difficult conversations, perhaps because we don’t know what to say, or are tempted to try and fix. We might reach for an old cliché that, if we’re being honest, probably wouldn’t work if someone said it to us in our moment of need. In the case of grief and bereavement, we might even hijack their story by saying “I know exactly how you feel”.
It feels uncomfortable when someone says they’re in pain, especially emotional pain. We might cringe at the idea if we worry we will make it awkward – so we might avoid it. Perhaps we change the subject. Make a joke. Or ignore it all together.
But, if a person feels brave enough to say something is wrong, it’s a big step for them. It takes a huge amount of courage to finally reach out. So what can we do?
Some things cannot be fixed. They can only be carried.Megan Devine, Refuge in Grief
1. Thank them for telling you. It’s important to acknowledge that speaking up is a big deal, and the fact they chose us – out of all the people they could have told – is a huge privilege.
2. Acknowledge what’s happening. It’s important to honour how difficult something might be for a person to experience, even if we don’t always connect with what they’re saying. We could say “I’m so sorry that’s happened” or “This sounds really difficult”. If your mind goes blank, say that, while acknowledging it’s good to talk. You could say “I don’t know what to say, I’m just so glad you told me”.
3. Ask what they need – if we feel we can help. We might not have the bandwidth right now to cope with someone else’s problems. Saying we’re sorry they’re going through a difficult time might be enough to let them know they’ve been heard. But if we can go a step further with compassion, the best way to help (and not assume we know), is to ask them what they need. When we speak from a place of empathy (rather than power and control), we will respond in ways that appreciates this scenario isn’t about us – even if we can relate – and won’t dive in to what we think they need. Instead, we will take time to understand what would help them right now, and what’s within our remit or limitations.
It’s important we take care of ourselves too, and so you can still set boundaries around when you’ll be available. You could ask “What do you need today?” or “I have ten minutes now, would it help to talk?” We can also offer to signpost to a list of agencies that might be able to help or give them the number for Samaritans on 116 123 in case they need someone to call late at night.
If they they don’t need anything, then you’ve still opened a space for them to know that, today, you’re there if they need you. It’s ok to just ‘be’ with them, and listen if that’s what they say they need.
Want to know how to start a conversation about mental health? Have a look at this.
Delphi is the author of Answers In The Dark: Grief, Sleep and How Dreams Can Help You Heal, out now.
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©️Copyright Delphi Ellis
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