Nicola Morgan

Author, Speaker, Supporter

BE RESILIENT has been chosen for the Reading Well for Teens booklist from The Reading Agency

How to support someone going through a bad time

At some point, someone you care about will go through a bad time. You will want to help. You will want to say the right thing – or, at the very least, not the wrong thing.

How can you know what to say? And, perhaps more importantly, what not to say?

The starting point is trying to work out – hear – how they’re feeling, what they need. But, however empathetic you are and however well you know the person, you cannot precisely experience what they are feeling, though certain things will make it easier or harder for you to identify with them. They might be good at explaining their thoughts and emotions or they might not be. They might not have the words.

What if it’s something you’ve experienced yourself?

This might or might not help. Having experienced something yourself – “lived experience” – does not make you an expert in how someone else will feel, only in how it was for you. Your reactions to your experience might not be the same as theirs – and if yours is in some way the past, memory is not the same as present experience. Time alters memories significantly.

You can only do your best to know how they feel and what responses will help them best.

When we act as a counsellor – which is what you will be effectively though not technically doing to your friend or loved one who is in pain – we should be careful about how we bring our own experience to bear. That requires careful thought, tact, some knowledge of what is typical, and, crucially, advanced listening skills. However, I have had a few traumatic experiences over the last two and a half years, from which I’ve learnt more than I knew before. There were things I knew in my head but the actual experiences did teach me something. They allowed me, I think, to put into practice some of the skills I’ve learnt theoretically through working on my knowledge of psychology and my counselling training.

Just for reference, my recent difficult experiences were:

  • Losing my younger sister after a five month fight (yes, I do say “fight”) with lung cancer – she, a lifelong non-smoking fitness suprema
  • Having my first grandchild born six weeks early – he’s absolutely fine, and now a sparkly two-year-old, but that’s not relevant to the fears at the time
  • Having a very close family member become seriously ill with sepsis after childbirth over Christmas and have surgery followed by two blood transfusions – I will not share the other details as it’s her story more than mine but I am still recovering

During and after all those times, various people said various things and responded in various ways. Some of those ways helped and some didn’t. Ever since my sister’s illness back in 2019 I’ve been quite analytical about how certain words help and others hinder the process by which a person keeps their equilibrium and gets through a bad experience. It is what I learnt from all this, including and perhaps especially my most recent situation, that I share with you now.

Caveat 1

Everyone is different. Just because something is annoying or helpful for one person does not mean everyone would find the same. But I am also a student of how people in general behave so I’m pretty confident that these reflect typical experiences. They are certainly sufficiently typical that they should be considered.

Caveat 2

Often you cannot fix the underlying problem. No words could have fixed any of the three problems I mention above. But fixing is not what the person is necessarily asking for or expecting. What your words can do is help or hinder how the person recovers. Words can have a big effect on feelings and feelings have a big effect on thought and behaviour. Saying the right things and avoiding the wrong things really does make a difference. It’s like the difference between the hug and the lack of a hug.

How to make your words help

Validate, don’t diminish. There’s nothing more undermining and upsetting than having anguish brushed away with words that fail to acknowledge the pain or fear, the actual experience you are having. It tends to pour lemon juice on the wounds. You are left thinking, “How loudly do I need to scream? What do I need to do to get you to hear me?”

Helpful responses could be – adjusted to suit the situation:

  • “Oh my gosh, that’s terrible. I’m so sorry. // I can only begin to imagine what that must have been like. // How horrific.”
  • “I’m so sorry you’ve had to deal with this – it must have been/be dreadful.”
  • “You must be/have been so scared/upset/shocked.”

If you’re a parent/adult responding to a young person expressing fear, sadness, upset, distress to something which seems relatively minor to you, you might also say something like:

  • “I know this feels awful right now” /  “I completely get how scared/angry/worried/upset you are at the moment.”
  • “That’s a horrible thing to go through/feels horrible.”
  • And, if appropriate, “How you feel about this is horrible now but it will feel different later.” (This validates their experience but also holds out hope and reassurance about the future.)

 

Realise that sometimes there is no “apart from”. When my sister was first diagnosed – and bear in mind that right from the start she was not going to survive – I made the embarrassingly tactless mistake of saying to my niece words to the effect of, “How are things apart from this?” (It wasn’t literally that but pretty much.) For my niece there was no “apart from” and I have no idea why these words came out of my mouth. I can only think that I just had no idea what to say because I was hurting, too, and because this was so new to me.

Similarly, a couple of people have asked me how my Christmas was “apart from” the medical emergency we went through. There was no “apart from”. Except, of course, there was. There always is – there’s the rest of life – but it’s the prerogative of the person suffering to say that, not the person asking the question and trying to support. So, wait for them to say “There were good things, too” before you point it out. (However, with an adult talking to a young person, you might decide that it might genuinely help them to be reminded of the good things. Just be really careful how you word it, making sure you’re not invalidating or undermining their real pain.)

 

Don’t give advice or information unless you actually do know something and they want to hear it. This is where there’s a difference depending on whether the person is young or adult and to what extent you know more than them. The younger the person, the less they are likely to know already and the more point there is in you trying to give advice, of course.

  • For example, don’t say something about sepsis/cancer/prematurity unless you have actual expertise in the field and the person seems to be asking for your opinion or seems not to already know what you’re saying. We were immensely helped by an obstetrician friend, but it was only his genuine special knowledge that was helpful.
  • Don’t talk about medical expertise being “wonderful nowadays”, because the person knows that but is really worried that this is the time it doesn’t work out.
  • Don’t ask if they have tried such-and-such unless they are actually asking for advice.

 

Don’t talk about your own “similar” experience unless it a) it really is similar and b) the person wants to hear

  • For example, when a person is desperately worried about a loved one in hospital, your story of a non-life-threatening procedure is usually not helpful. It could be hurtful because it suggests you were not actually listening to them at all. This is about them, not you!
  • But if you did have the same sort of illness or experience, ask if the person would like to hear about it or would like to know some good sources of information and help. Acknowledge perhaps that “I know this isn’t the same but…” and then take it back to them.

 

Don’t give glib stories

  • Avoid these ones: “So-and-so was born eight weeks prematurely and now he’s 6′ tall and plays football for England/runs a successful business/has a double first.”
  • Take great care with “miracle survival” stories in general. These can be helpful but they have to a) come from the right person b) be completely relevant c) be accurate and verifiable d) be what the person needs to hear. If the person is telling you about their horrible situation because they are turning to you as a knowledgable person, fine, but if they’re just wanting to share that they are hurting, be careful.

 

Listen

  • Are they saying “I’m going through a dreadful thing and I want to tell you about it” or are they saying “I’m going through a dreadful thing and I’d welcome your advice”?
  • Follow their lead – maybe they want to talk or maybe they don’t.
  • What words are they using and how dramatic is the language? Reflect it back. If they say they’re “a bit worried” don’t say “Oh my gosh, that’s terrible” but if they say “I’ve had a very shocking thing happen” don’t respond with “That sounds quite stressful.” Counselling involves hearing, reflecting and validating. Only then can the person begin to move through the feelings towards thoughts, behaviours and healing.

 

Hear here. Really hearing someone means getting down to the place where they are, being the shoulder to cry on or the sounding board to talk to. It does not always mean saying anything in particular at all. “I’m so sorry. I’m here for you” is completely fine.

What if you think you got it wrong?

Apologise? Say you got it wrong because you just didn’t have the words or it came out wrong or you’ve been thinking about it more. And just try saying it better the next time. Getting it wrong is not the end of the world. We can rectify mistakes and become better at getting it right. I don’t think I always get it right, even now. And, as I said at the beginning, everyone’s different so really all you’re doing is guessing and sometimes that guess will be the wrong call.

I hope that now at least we can all guess better!

What about helpful actions?

I’ll talk about helpful actions next time. Today has been about words. Words have enormous power, to heal or to harm.

Counselling conditions

It’s worth bearing in mind the core conditions for most types of counselling:

  1. Genuineness – you genuinely want to help
  2. Acceptance – you accept that how they say they feel is how they feel (validate)
  3. Understanding – not “there, there, I understand” but understanding based on knowledge. You need some understanding of how their mind is working and reacting in the situation they’re in. That understanding comes with age, with experience, with reading, learning, listening and trying. It comes with opening one’s mind.

And it’s that knowledge-based “understanding” that all my work seeks to bring you and the young people you care about. There are my books and there are also the recorded webinars on my online shop. If you’re a subscriber to my website you should have your discount code. If you haven’t got it, ask me for it!


I currently have a few spare dates for May onwards for online events, INSET training sessions, *parent talks and also Q&A/talks for students to boost mental strength. (*Also availability in Feb and April for one or two parent talks.)

 

 

 

 

 

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