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The Worst Thing to Say to Someone in Pain
People throughout your day ask you how you are. You’ll hear it as you step to the cashier, as you enter the office at work, or when you unexpectedly bump into someone you know. Sometimes, of course, people genuinely want to know how you are.People throughout your day ask you how you are. You’ll hear it as you step to the cashier, as you enter the office at work, or when you unexpectedly bump into someone you know. Sometimes, of course, people genuinely want to know how you are.
More often than not, though, it’s just said out of politeness and no one is expecting you to answer honestly with “Today’s been miserable. My car broke down and then my boss blasted me for being late for work.” Everyone just expects your answer to be “I’m fine, how are you?” and they answer in kind.
This same dynamic is often what happens when someone offers “Let me know if you need anything” to someone who is struggling or in pain.
It’s said so automatically and universally that the person struggling tends to offer the predictable response “No, thanks. I’ve got it. I’m fine” even when they are anything but fine.
“Let me know if you need anything.”
This seven word cliché, as well intentioned as you may mean it, really is one if the worst things you can say to someone who is going through a hard time.
It’s just not helpful because it actually requires a lot of the person who is clearly already struggling. They have to be able to know or anticipate their need and be willing to push through any vulnerability that they may be feeling to say their need out loud.
It’s not easy to say “Actually, I have another doctor’s appointment tonight and I don’t want my kids to eat take out for the third night in a row, could you make them dinner?”
In the moment, that feels like a lot to ask of someone so even though the person is struggling and in pain, they will very likely hesitate in asking for that kind of help.
The word “anything” is so daunting to someone who is already feeling vulnerable or compromised.
What are the limits around it? Is what I need too much to ask? Am I going to be a burden? What if things get worse and I am going to need more help later on down the line? Should I just wait?
This is the kind of dialogue that people tend to have with themselves when they are receiving these vague offers for help. Often times, the internal dialogue is so exhausting, they just say nothing.
Just. Show. Up.
Beginning. Middle. End. When someone you love or care about is having a hard time, the best thing you can do is just show up. Visit. Drop by. Check in. Call. Instead of focusing on offers of help, just do your best to be helpful. Look around at the situation, see what you think needs to be done and just work with people to get it done.
Too often, people avoid stepping in because they don’t want to be intrusive. They are leery about just showing up for a visit, coming by with casseroles, or offering a certificate to the spa. What you’re very likely trying to find out when you say “Let me know if you need anything” is that you don’t know what they might need but that you’re willing to help.
You’ll be more helpful if you change the question.
Instead of saying “What do you need?” or “Let me know if you need anything.” Try saying instead “I thought I would come by for a quick visit around 2:00. Would that work out for you or would you prefer another time?” It’s easier for someone who is struggling to turn someone down or reschedule to a better time than it is to say “Actually, I have been kind of lonely. Would you mind stopping by?”
You can also try:
- When Frank was in the hospital, it really helped me when my mother-in-law made us a week’s worth of meals that we could just heat up and eat whenever. I’d love to pay it forward and do that for you. What do you guys like to eat? I happily take requests.
- Would it be helpful if I took your kids for the night? I’ll look after them for a day or two if that might give you a break.
- What kind of movies do you like? I’m stopping by the library and could pick you up a few.
- I know there’s nothing I can do to make this go away but I sure would like to make it easier. Would you be ok with it if I cleaned your house for you on Saturday morning? I’d love to take a chore or two off your plate.
- I know you must miss being able to tend to your garden. Would it be ok if the kids and I came by and did some weeding for you? You worked hard to get your garden to where it’s at. I know it’s important to you.
The best way to help someone in pain is to be present in and with their pain.
It’s hard not knowing what to do or how to be helpful but by being really present and not just staying on the sidelines, you’re doing everything a person needs. You’re validating their pain and experience, making it easier where you can, and reminding your loved one that they aren’t alone.
That’s all you can do and more often than not, it’s everything.
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