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6 Not-Shitty Things To Say To A Friend Going Through A Shitty Time

"When life gives you lemons, I won't tell you a story about my friend's cousin who died of lemons."

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When someone we care about is suffering a loss — whether it’s a death, diagnosis of a major illness, getting fired, the end of a relationship, etc. — our first instinct is often to try to make it better and help solve their problem with our suggestions, questions, and ideas.

This approach works very well if someone loses their iPhone. It really doesn’t work if someone has suffered a major loss.

The truth is, you can’t fix a loss, and you don’t need to. Your friend with cancer doesn’t need or want you to send them links about the miracles of wheatgrass, or come up with a mind-blowing spiritual insight that will give them a new perspective on life. The most supportive thing you can do for someone in a hard time is to be willing to show up, stay present, and listen. And fortunately, learning to listen is also a lot easier than coming up with the elusive “right words” that will never come.

So, how do you start a conversation when your main role is listening? Here are a few ways:

1. Focus on their feelings, not just the facts.

Emily McDowell

If your friend’s dad had a heart attack and is in the ICU, it’s natural to want to know what happened. In other parts of life, getting the full story is important so you can figure out how to react or solve the problem. But when your goal is to be supportive, your primary concern should be to find out how your friend is feeling. Instead of asking a ton of clarifying questions that can divert the conversation away from the emotional hard stuff, try asking, “How are you doing with it?” There’s always time to fill in the facts later.

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2. Don’t assume you know how someone feels.

Emily McDowell

You were heartbroken when you split with your ex, so you definitely know how it feels to be your friend who just got dumped, right? Well, no. We all go through loss differently, and relationships are complicated. For some people, a major breakup or divorce is totally devastating. For others, it’s a reason to throw a party. Empathy gives you insight into some of the emotions your friend might be having, but saying “I know how you feel” can sound dismissive of their unique experience. So instead of saying: “I totally know how you feel,” try asking, “How’s it going for you?”

3. Remember that no one dies from being asked “How are you?”

Emily McDowell

The best way to figure out how someone is feeling is also the simplest: ask them. “How are you?” sounds so basic, but most people will appreciate it. It tells the person that you remember and care about what’s happening, but it doesn’t require a long commitment to a conversation if they don’t feel like talking.

4. But! Sometimes, a better question is “How are you, today?”

Emily McDowell

If your friend is lying on the floor sobbing, or if it’s in the first days or weeks after their brother died, it’s a safe bet that a true description of their feelings isn’t that they're okay. One way to help them tell you how they really feel is to ask, “How are you, today?” Adding “today” to your question acknowledges that overall, you’re aware that their life kind of sucks in general at the moment, and that you understand there are good days and bad days. It also takes what can feel like an overwhelming question — “How am I doing with my brother being gone forever?” — and turns it into a manageable one.

5. Or, an alternative: “What’s that like for you?” or “How’s that going for you?”

Emily McDowell

Say your friend is now taking care of their mom in the hospital, on top of managing their own life. You ask your friend how they're doing, and they say, “Okay. My mom is still in the hospital.” Instead of offering up your own conclusion or story in response — like, “That must be terrible!” or “It was really hard when my uncle was in the hospital, too” — this would be a great time to ask, “How’s that going for you?” This gives them more latitude than “How are you?” to respond with whatever is up for them, which may be their feelings about the situation, or it may be they'd rather rant about how stressful it’s been to deal with the insurance company.

6. Say “I have faith in you.”

Emily McDowell

There’s nothing like an unexpected life crisis to make us feel totally incompetent and unequipped to deal. Your friend who’s getting divorced is likely navigating a lot of scary change at once: the loss of their identity, financial changes, community, housing, and more. Even if you understand their fears, if you have faith in their ability to manage their situation, tell them. Instead of asking, “How are you going to pay for your apartment?” try “I trust your judgment, and I know you’ll figure out the right thing to do for you.”

Ultimately, the most non-shitty way to respond to a friend going through a shitty time is to ask, listen, and learn. It’s not about being an Oprah-level emotional ninja. It’s not about tough love. It’s just your humility. Because what matters more anything you have to say is the shit your friend wants to tell.