Wendy's Blog

How to Show Real Compassion

by Wendy Keller

When someone we care about is hurting, compassionate people like you want to do or say something to help ease their pain.  But sometimes, the most loving thing we can say is nothing at all. Here are some ways you can offer real comfort – and prevent yourself from making the situation any worse.

 

1. Let it be all about them.

 

Say simply “I am so sad that you’re hurting.”  Or “I can’t imagine what you’re going through.”  People often foolishly say, “I understand because I had…” and go on to describe their own painful experience.  But it is NOT the same to lose a parent as it is to lose a child; it is NOT the same to lose a pet as to lose a spouse; it is NOT the same even if you also lost the same relation to say, “…because my husband died, too.”  Every relationship is different, and every person responds to it differently, and every person’s way of measuring their loss is different.  When my children died, a surprisingly large number of people said, “I understand because my pet died, and it was like a child to me.”  I wanted to shriek at them!  I never left my son home with a bowl of water on the floor!  I never went to bed and left my daughter roaming in the yard!  Your loss is not the same as anyone else’s. Similarly, when my house burned down, a few well-meaning but incredibly ignorant people said,”Well, at least you survived.”  I can’t even verbalize how insensitive that comment is!  Just use one of the two suggested phrases and you’ll be safe – and compassionate – and appropriate.

 

2. Listen.  The kindest thing you can do is to not talk. 

 

After you make one of the compassionate statements above, either offer a hug or just sit silently with the person.  If they want to talk, they will.  If they don’t, let them be.  If you feel tears, let them fall.  Sit quietly.  Don’t ply them with questions or drown them in platitudes, especially not those reflective of your faith. For instance, saying, “It’s OK, he’s with Jesus now” is an incredibly hurtful statement to the other person, who doesn’t WANT him to “be with Jesus”. If the person believes he’s with Jesus, they will feel guilty for feeling grief; if the person used to believe people went to Jesus when they died, and they are now questioning their own faith, it’s possible you will drive them further away by being so insensitive.  If you say, “Well, at least she’s out of pain” you are creating guilt again.  Just be quiet. Just be present.  If the relationship you have with the suffering person includes touching – then hold their hand, hug them while they cry, just be there.  You cannot DO anything to make it better!  I’ve heard people trying to comfort someone who is dying by saying, “You don’t get more than you can bear.” Shut up already!  You have no real idea what that person is going through!  Don’t make it worse by imposing your story, your beliefs or your platitudes on anyone else. Listening is the greatest gift you can give.

 

3. Help. 

 

If it’s a person whose life is now heavily burdened because of a loss, illness, disaster or tragedy, and if it is in your power to help, do it.  If there are small kids, offer to take them to the park tomorrow afternoon.  It will give your friend some time to grieve or catch up with their life.  If you can bring over food, if you can sweep the kitchen floor, or get their car serviced, or help them deal with the insurance adjuster, do it. Walk their dog. Write them a check. Lots of people say, “If there’s anything I can do, call me” and then wait for the suffering person to make the call.  They never will!  It’s not part of our culture to ask for help.  You have to look around, see what needs to be done, and offer to do specifically that.  If the person says No, respect their wishes.  Maybe a day or two later, offer to do something different.  But by offering specific things, you are pointing out that specific things still need to be done – and that’s often more than someone in grief, trauma or pain can do for themselves.

Your desire to be compassionate is a wonderful thing!  If you’ve done or said something “wrong” in the past, don’t beat yourself up.  You didn’t know. But now that you do, these are a few lessons that will help you be an effective comforter in the future.

 

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[addtoany]
 
  1. “He’s with Jesus” — remember also, many of us don’t believe in Jesus as more than a historical figure, and this is even more inappropriate to non-believers. (Nor are we searching to fill that alleged “Jesus-sized hole” in our souls.)

    • I could not have said it better myself! There’s ample research that people go to unpredictable extremes during crises. Even the already religious can become either atheists/haters or the opposite – zealots. Each person who suffers has to figure out what is comforting to them, and trying to shove one’s own belief system on someone else – even if you suspect that person believed the same way you did just a few days ago – is incredibly painful, completely inappropriate and utterly insulting to the person who is suffering.

      Wendy

      • I do so agree with your very sensible advice on helping the bereaved. I think that it could also be used when speaking with those who have health/relationship problems. I have friends? who will say “well I know people who are in a far worse position than you” when frankly ,whilst of course I feel sorry for anyone who is going through a difficult time, this does not help me but only leaves me feeling unsupported .

  2. I absolutely hate some of those sayings/platitudes also. Also, “What doesn’t break you makes you stronger.” BS You feel broken at times and you may never feel as strong after many tragedies.. and you are so right about not starting your own stories, nothing is the same.

    • Carol – I totally hate those platitudes, too. Especially: “Time heals” I think, “Yeah, right. Not if you just sit around all that time wallowing in misery, feeling incredibly sorry for yourself.” Time teaches us to handle pain better, it doesn’t “fix” anything of itself. Do you think so too?

      Wendy

  3. The one I heard the most last spring when I lost my mom…”She’s in a better place.” I actually went OFF on a coworker asking her how she knew that. She may believe it, but how does she KNOW?? I apologized later for biting her head off. When she lost her mom when school started again, I just gave her a big hug. She responded to it with, “Now I know why you bit off my head last spring, I’m sorry” Wow…I wasn’t looking for that at all, but now she really knows (unfortunately)

    • Becky – I really chuckled over your comment! YES! I remember that comment, too – and thinking “Ya got absolutely NO empirical evidence, pal!” It makes me want to slap people – or write blog posts about how to treat people going through it. Ha ha! Thanks for sharing.

      Wishing you love, joy and peace,
      Wendy

    • Absolutely! Thank you for asking. Beth, anything you want to pull from here and share, you’re more than welcome. It’s about sharing the message.

      XOXOX,
      Wendy

  4. What do you do when the person suffering lives many miles away and you can’t go see them and they don’t want to or can’t express their suffering?

    • Jodi, I can only offer my opinion. My lifelong best girlfriend is going through a divorce right now, and it’s rough on her. She’s in AZ, I’m in CA. I suggest two things, esp if the person doesn’t want to talk about it:

      Call them every other week or so (weekly if it’s a close relationship) and if you don’t get them, just leave a message that says “I’m thinking about you today.”
      Send cards. Real, paper cards. They don’t have to be expensive Hallmarks – just little notes.

      It’s astonishing, but I’ve known grown men who have secretly hidden in their sock drawer or something a few cards friends wrote when they were going through the death of a parent or some other major struggle. People re-read cards – they don’t often re-read emails. (Don’t know why!)

      That’s my best advice. Good luck to your friend.

      Wendy

      • Thank you for your reply Wendy! My friend is suffering from Stage 3 brain cancer. He has no family he is close to or friends that live close by the treament center he is at, basically he is alone, going through this alone. I think sending cards is an excellent idea BUT my friend won’t accept anything gift wise and will not send me a mailing address. He is incredibly strong and is doing as well as expected for someone in his situation. I just feel totally helpless not being able to help. I send him texts and emails with positive quotes weekly and tell him I care and I am here always should he ever want to talk. Guess that’s all I can really do?

        Thanks again,

        Jodi

        • I’m sorry to intrude on this, and I do hope you don’t mind me making a suggestion? Sometimes when people do not wish for direct gifts, contact etc they still wish that nobody else would have to suffer as they are, so an indirect gift could be just as nice and that could be something like a donation to a charity, perhaps that specialises in helping people with brain tumours (and offers support to their families) or maybe even if you have a couple of hours spare to go and do voluntary visits to a local ward near yourself as the likelyhood that there is somebody there with no friends or family close by is fairly high.
          I wish you all well!
          And thank you to Wendy for your fabulous advice always – you really have helped me personally! x

          • My pleasure – I strongly think that sometimes your time is the nicest gift you can give to anybody, especially nowadays where people just don’t seem to have enough of it! x

  5. Perfectly said, so simple and yet so many in our culture do not know how to respond to death. Death makes people uneasy, it creates a fear for most, and then they don’t know how to act.

    • Doesn’t it now, Heather! You said it! Like it’s contagious to die or something. Strangest thing. I think it’s just that well-meaning people have no tools, thus I wrote this and there are probably other things on the internet that help people learn how not to say stupid things!

      I am always surprised that “fear of death” comes up so high. I think that’s what makes people awkward around it when it happens.

      Thanks for writing.

      Wendy

  6. Hi, first off, thanks for writing this.

    Somehow, I think of myself as a dense person, and would oftentimes wonder how to comfort people. Though these are general ways you’ve shared, I think that they really do help. The thing is, I’d like to be someone who my peers or even, my family members can turn to when they feel like the world is on their shoulders. We all have our own ways of dealing with pain, the only thing we need is someone there to be with us – not to judge, not to patronize, just there to hold us when we need someone to do so.

    Although I’ve been a person who would always look at things at a practical manner, I guess my problem would lie there. I would forget that we’re human.

    Thanks again, and sorry for making this long.

  7. I always hated hearing, “I’m sorry for you loss.” I wanted to say my father isn’t lost, if he was, I could go and find him. It just got old quickly.

  8. When my brother passed away, two of the most important people in my life stepped in during the first few days while life was so hectic.

    My husband, who normally isn’t very involved at home with cleaning, cooking, and managing the kids, took over the children. He got them to bed, got them up and dressed, and took them where they needed to be. He never asked me any silly (to me) questions, never asked for help.

    My best friend came to my house to cook and clean. She didn’t ask if she could, she just came and took charge. She never asked what needed to be done, or what I wanted, she just did what she would do at her own home, I suppose. I wouldn’t want just anyone doing that, but my best friend, of course!

    It was such a blessing to have both of them filling in for me, and made me realize that I had made the right choice in husband and friend.

    For those with whom I am not so close, a phonecall to say “I’m thinking of you,” or a card, or a hug when they saw me in public was enough. Just a simple acknowledgement. We often feel like the “space” needs to be filled with words, but that’s not always true. Silence can speak volumes.

  9. Wendy.

    Your 3 notations extreemly important……………Let it be all about them, listen and help……Nothing gives more comfort than someone actually sitting back letting you get a load off by making them feel important, empathy, listening with genuine interest and of course helping out wherever you can….sometimes under the radar but helping never the less. Thank you again

  10. KatherineSpins says:

    Thank you so much. I lost my husband five years ago and was just stunned at some of the things I heard. When my son graduated from college two years ago, and I said “I wish my husband were here,” someone actually said to me “Well, he really IS here in spirit!” You know what? NO. NO, HE ISN’T. I might not have had the gentlest response to that particular one.

    I’ve been very sensitive since then to what I saw to people in their grief. I so appreciate what you’ve written, and in a form that is easy to share with others.

    • Hi Katherine,

      My motivation in writing that one was so that people who find themselves with a friend who is suffering REFRAIN from saying the stuff all of us who have grieved have heard. It boggles my mind “Well, he really is here in spirit.” Which totally negates the intensity of what you were feeling and diminishes your emotion. That’s the part that gets me!

      Thanks for sharing. We’re ALL sensitive if we’ve been through it!

      Wendy

      PS – Congratulations on his graduation! You did it!

  11. I love this article!! When my baby was born premature at 21 weeks, I had this person (who at the time I didn’t even know who they were, turned out to be my grandmothers oldest sisters daughter and her husband) come up to me at my mothers house after the funeral and say
    “That maybe this happened because of how I choose to live life without religion” I was horrified. The last thing I need from some “stranger” was to belittle me about my beliefs just because they differ’d from theirs.

    • Michelle – I am SO horrified by the insensitivity of the people who said that to you! People are just amazing sometimes, huh? When Jeremy and Amelia died, I had three or four different people say to me that this must be punishment for my “secret sins” and I should repent lest it happen to any future children I might have. I was so overwhelmed that people would say such cruel, ignorant things! Now, I recognize that they were trying in their own little twisted minds to be compassionate somehow, and truly believed that was the cause of my distress, but goodness! I would hate to live inside their brains, wouldn’t you? Like those people who said that to you – can you imagine what torture living in such sick fear must be?

      Sending you wishes for love and peace,
      Wendy

  12. this is great advice, Having lost a daughter at 18 I heard a lot of things I have never repeated to others. I do however see a few things I have said that would have been better left unsaid. I have however realized that everyones pain is different and we handle it different and whether ask by the other person or offered by me any comparison I have alwasy tried to be sure and remind them that each situation is different, each person is different, the timeline for whatever we go through is different.
    We just need to do what works for us. It helped me to have some expectation for what might come but understanding that it is an individual grief as individual as you and I are is seriously important. You may have lost a spouse, and I may have lost a spouse, but your loss was from a different reason than mine and you realtionship was different than mine so will be your grief. I like that you mentioned divorce, I think it is necessary for people to realize that can be ugly and whether it is or isnt it is a loss and people grieve over that loss. What ever reason for that loss no matter how you feel about that person now it is a loss you grieve over for one reason or another.

    • Janet, thank you for sharing your perspective and I am so sad to hear you’ve lost your daughter. Amazing how we all navigate this path, isn’t it? Like you say, everyone does it differently.

      Wishing you peace, love and joy,
      Wendy

  13. Super article Wendy!
    I have noticed in myself when wanting to ‘be there’ for someone in need the urge to fill the silence … it does require due diligence to hold ones tongue but well worth it. Finding a need to fill is wonderful. One experience I would add is to try to be sensitive of the persons time available for you to sit quietly with them …they may be spending valuable get things done time not wanting to offend you by being truthful they need to do something else.
    If or should i say when i have to go through another tragedy I pray I can not let the unwanted platitudes rule my emotions.

    • Jeannie –

      You make an excellent point, of course. If they are sitting with you out of obligation, that’s a whole other affair. I remember when I was younger, when anyone had a baby or got sick or was dealing with a death, all the members of our community would organize a food brigade, just drop it off and go. It was very kind and much appreciated.

      All the best,
      Wendy

  14. This article is absolutely brilliant. My first husband died very suddenly at a young age in 1981. In 1991 my second husband died after a 9 month illness. A friend who came to ‘comfort’ me actually patted my arm and told me that it was “God’s will”.
    I screamed at her!! Whoops!!
    I am now thankful that she wasn’t around in 2005 when my beautiful daughter died!!

    • Jill – I wish I’d done the same! Good for you! I bet she never did THAT again. Who knows how many other people you helped that she would have hurt.

      You’ve had a lot of losses, Jill. Sending you my best wishes for your love, joy and peace from here forward.

      Wendy

  15. I love this article!! The advice seems so simple and yet so many people don’t get it. People mean well; they really do, but they need to just be quiet.

    People said some really interesting, unhelpful things after my dad died in 2009 like:
    “Well, at least you got to spend one last Christmas with him” (he died on the 27th)

    “At least he didn’t suffer”/”At least he went quickly”

    “God never gives us more than we can handle”

    and one guy told my mother that it was ok and she would be up to dating again in a year. A year! Like it only takes a year to grieve and then everything is perfectly normal again. That one still amazes me.

    • Anna,

      I’m just horrified at how tactless it was of him to suggest she’d be dating in a year! Especially so soon after your Dad’s death. People really don’t think, do they? I hope my article and others like it will educate those who wish to be of comfort. I know people mean well, they just sometimes go about it in funny ways.

      Sending you love,
      Wendy

  16. I am going through divorce after 17 years of marriage. My immediate family is small, so my inlaws were my family. I finally had to end the marriage because my wife would not leave her boyfriend she had for 2 years.

    Not having family support is very lonely indeed. I have teenage boys who live with me; but, no one calls to say ‘Hi’ because the inlaws are angry at me because the boys chose to stay with me and not to live with their Mom and new boyfriend.

    I get told to, “..move on”, and, “..you will find someone new”, or my favorite, “…at least you have the boys!”

    That may be true someday, but in the meantime I raise boys with less financial means, I struggle with depression, lonliness and despair at times. Well-meaning people saying things like this adds to the misery.

    • Natasha Poppe says:

      Stephen, I was about to bring up this topic. No one can move on until they are ready. I got pulled into an abusive situation and fell into terrible depression. Medication and therapies take a long time, and I really needed to talk, and wanted only a few people to know about it. I’m responsible for my behavior, but being treated like I caused the abuse, or should have moved on… for one thing, it kept me in the limbo of trying harder to “prove” my case and kept me stuck. So then I felt guilty for imposing on my friends.

  17. 3 years ago my 22 year old son was in a fatal car accident. Several weeks later a friend of over 30 years said to me “You know that only those who cry out to Jesus Christ at the moment of their death go to Heaven?”. I was stunned, don’t think I said much at the time, I was still in shock from the accident. Months later I brought it up to her and said how much it hurt, she denied saying it. Another platitude I am tired of: “You never know how strong you are until you have to be”. Really? I could survive just fine without knowing how strong I am. I just want my son back. No reason will ever make sense, make this ok.

    • Sue,

      First and foremost, I am so sorry you lost your son. Second, I’d like to shake your friend! I can scarcely believe she denied saying it. Wow! That must have compounded it. I know people mean well, but really! I think platitudes in general must have been invented to give people who are NOT going through a rough time something to say to make themselves feel better.

      I really resonated with your “I could survive just fine without knowing how strong I am”. I thought the same thing every time someone said that to me, too. Thanks for commenting. I wish you love, joy and peace from this moment forward,

      Wendy

  18. Hi,i’m reading almost all these comments…and it helps,in someway,but when you come to some dificult situation in your life,no matter how difficult it is,it is the worst ever for you,and your pain is the biggest one…no compare,and you only need a friend,to sit down with someone who will understand,and just be with you,with no stupid questions,and words…my father has a lung cancer,and doctor said to me that he’ left 3 month…and for me,my mother and brother there is no words for that pain,and everyone suffers in a diffrent way…and I think also that the fathers pain is the greatest one,and it is so stupid and unnessesery to tell anything,and you don’t know what to tell in that situation,only he knows how he feels really…and we can only be there for him,to be next to him and help how we know the best…sometimes without words…

    regards to everyone

  19. I firmly believe that God places us where we are supposed to be. We may not understand WHY; but we stay because somehow we just KNOW we are supposed to be where God has placed us.. I am not married to my best friend..he’s 56 and I am 51. He is the best man I have ever known. He is kind, commpassionate, caring, giving, loyal to a fault, devoted, honest, has morals, loves me more than anyone has ever loved me in my life and he is an alcholic. I need help. He just woke up. Please write to me. I am reaching out for help. Jody

    • Dearest Jody:
      You took an important step! Divine Power is with you to take another one.
      Get to an Al-Anon meeting. There is no shame in loving someone who has a struggle with alcohol.
      You can continue to love him , and take steps to bring sanity into your life. You need support from others who know exactly what you are facing, or similar things.
      The most loving thing you can do for your sweet man is go get help for YOU. Obviously, trying to change someone else is impossible. Its not a betrayal to reach out… these groups are confidential.. but a sign of true love for your man that you know is trapped in sabotaging himself. You see the man inside that is trapped in there. You can not rescue him, but support him to self- care.
      Praying for you to have courage to reach out to safe people who wont say silly hurtful things to you, or about your sweet man.
      Take that next step Jody!
      All are routing for you!

  20. One of the things I heard, both when my mom and dad passed away, was, “At least you had her/him (insert number here) years”. It made me want to scream, “I don’t give a damn…I still miss them and want them here”!

    • Carrie – I want to slap people who say things like that! I heard “God needed your babies for angels” and “At least you got to have them for a little while.” Good grief! Or, NOT-so-good-grief! I hope that my post makes its way around the world and tens of thousands of grieving people are spared such stupid but kindly-meant comments. I guess people just don’t know how hurtful such comments are. Sorry you had to go through that.

      Wishing you love, peace and joy,
      Wendy

  21. I’m impressed, I must say. Really hardly ever do I encounter a weblog that’s each educative and entertaining, and let me let you know, you have hit the nail on the head. Your thought is excellent; the problem is one thing that not enough individuals are talking intelligently about. I’m very comfortable that I stumbled throughout this in my search for something referring to this.

    • Toni,

      I’m truly touched by your compliment. Thank you! I do this as a work of love and I so sincerely want people to increase their compassion toward themselves first and others second. I hope I am conveying that here. Your comment really encouraged me – thanks a lot.

      Wendy

  22. Brent Bollmeier says:

    Two things come to mind:

    I have a dear friend who has Lupus. When I had my nervous breakdown, we sort of “compared notes” and one thing came to light. If you don’t know what to say to someone who is hurting, it’s okay to simply say “I don’t know what to say.” It’s better than an empty platitude, or simply saying nothing. We know you don’t know what to say. Many times there’s nothing that can be said.

    Also, when a friend is hurting, I never know where the line is between helping and intruding. I really want to help them, but have ruined past friendships by pressing the issue too hard. Thoughts?

  23. So true! My grandmother died this summer, she was 100. Yes, we was with us along time and she was sick, but I still wish she was here.

    • Mirna,

      How beautiful! I still miss my grandfather though he’s been dead almost a dozen years. I suspect it’s not the length of time we knew someone, it’s the love we had for them.

      Wendy

  24. I am a single parent of 3 adult children, I’m in a 3 yr relationship with a widower(7yrs) man 10 years older than me, his children are all grown adult 22-30 yrs. He and I have lived together for 1 1/2 years now, he is in poor health but I love him for better or worse. He has been hospitalized 3 times over the past 14 months and each time I try to stay with him as much as possible to keep up his spirits. His children come for about an hour a week. My problem is he recently asked me to marry him and I accepted, his youngest daughter is upset and feels I should be supporting them that their relationship is more important with their father than mine is with him. Being a single mother I understand that your children are important and we both have always been there for our children, and even been a comfort and support to each others children. We have been somewhat close until now… he is currently hospitalized for 2 months on life support and he wants to get married soon, I suggested we not rush but possibly do a Handfasting or joining ceremony and he loves the idea, but once his daughter found out our plans she has started emotionally blackmailing him that her and her siblings will distance themselves further if it occurs. They all have great educations, and beginning there medical careers and all are in relationships and we are both very happy for them and want them to continue to grow and be more independent instead of us, he or I being an encumberant. However they seem to feel I can’t be trusted … because I’m with him and supporting him emotionally and physically too much.
    I’m at a total loss, I’ve managed our business together and the daughter feels I should be giving her money from the business to take care of her cell phone bills, and other things so she is not stressing over money…unfortunately all his personal money is tied up in a money market account that only he can access, I’ve already explained to the family that his daught can have power of attorney over all his other things except our business. And also tried to assure them that once we are married I am not entitled to his belongings…the house is his, the money market account is his, his personal checking and savings is his…none of these things are viewed as community property here in state of california…but they still are putting pressure on me to leave the house and him while he’s in the hospital and needs me the most….
    please someone give me a different perspective, how can i get through to these adult kids that I’m not a threat and just love and want to be part of their fathers life?

    • Hello Paige,

      I can only reply to this sad email from my own experience, of course. I’m not an attorney, but I also live in California and got divorced here many years ago, so I know a bit about the laws, etc. I also have a 22 year old daughter, whom I raised alone. There are so many things here that I want to comment on. (Please remember, this is just my opinion!)

      1. If your future husband wants to marry you even while he’s on a ventilator, his desire and yours should be the first consideration.
      2. It may be from their own guilt at not being there so much for their dad that his kids are resisting you.
      3. I gently suggest that his daughter is being selfish. At 22 or older, she is capable of taking care of herself and neither you nor her father “owe” her anything.
      4. If the business is yours and his 50-50, then in the succession plan, it becomes yours should he die. You sound quite reasonable about the other matters (e.g., his money market account)

      All that said, to minimize the legal exposure you might have should the worst happen, I wonder if it might soothe his children to see a copy of his will or something now so that they know his personal money and possessions will go to them, not you, in that sad event. If he’s capable of agreeing to that, now might be the right time?

      I’m really sorry you’re going through this! Sounds like you have plenty of stress with your dear man sick. Sending you a big huge virtual hug and my best wishes for a peaceful resolution.

      Wendy

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