Don’t say this to someone who is hurting

Empathy3Where have you been? the mother demanded. The little girl replied, “On my way home, I met a friend who was crying because she had broken her doll.” “Oh,” said her mother, “then you stopped to help her fix the doll?” “Oh, no,” replied the little girl, “I stopped to help her cry.”

When someone is hurting, do not respond with:

  • Advice/instruction – “Let me tell you how to solve the problem.” Or, “The next time that happens you should…”
  • Logic/reasoning – “Let me analyze the situation and tell you why it happened.” Or, “I think the reason that happened was because…”
  • Pep talk – “You’re a winner! You’ll make it through these tough times!” Or, “I’m sure tomorrow will be a better day.”
  • Minimize the incident – “Sure it hurt, but get things into perspective; there’s a lot going on that’s good.” Or, “Aren’t you being overly sensitive?”
  • Anger – “That makes me so mad! They shouldn’t get away with that!” (Angry at who caused the hurt.) Or, “I’m so upset that you keep getting yourself hurt.” (Angry at the one who is hurting.)
  • Martyr’s complex – “I had something similar happen to me.” Or, “After the kind of day I had, let me tell you what hurt really feels like.”
  • Personal fear/anxiety – “I’m afraid that’s going to affect my life too.”
  • Mr. “Fix it” – “I can’t believe that salesman talked to you like that. I’m calling the store right now and talking to his boss.” Or, “I know you must have been scared when you had a flat tire on that lonely road. Tomorrow I’ll take the car in and get a whole new set of tires.”
  • Spiritualizing – “Well, you know that God will work all this out for your good.” Or, “Remember what Joseph said when his brothers mistreated him: ‘They meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.’”

The best antidote for hurt is comfort. Comfort is an emotion, not a cerebral commodity. It is also very simple; if we make it complicated, we’ll miss the mark.

We can comfort others through gentle words, appropriate touch, and our quiet presence.

Gentle words

While there are many words in the Oxford Dictionary, only about 40-50 words qualify as comforting words. The “vocabulary of comfort” includes phrases like these:

      • “I’m really sorry that you’re hurting.”
      • “It hurts me that you’re hurting because I love you and care for you.”
      • “It saddens me that you felt _________ (embarrassed, rejected, belittled). I know that must have hurt you.”

When comforting someone, the fewer words spoken, the better. If we say too much, we will inevitably move into the cognitive, rational realm, which will be counterproductive.

When speaking words of comfort, it’s also important that our tone of voice be complementary to what is being said. Words of comfort should be spoken gently and with compassion.

Appropriate touch

Proper and tender acts of physical affection can also minister comfort. Depending on the relationship, a warm embrace, a hug, holding hands, or a kiss can help communicate care and concern.

Quiet presence

Sometimes, just being with a person who is hurting is helpful. When I was a young minister, I wasn’t sure what to say to someone who had just lost a loved one. A wise mentor taught me that the “ministry of your presence” is powerful and effective. Just being physically present communicates care and concern.

So when you encounter someone who is hurting, do not do the nine items listed at the beginning of this essay. Do extend comfort. You’ll be amazed at the outcome.

[reminder]What are your thoughts about this essay?[/reminder]

26 Replies to “Don’t say this to someone who is hurting”

  1. Reminds me of the scene in Inside Out where Sadness comforts Bing Bong after he lost his rocket. Joy was bouncing around all self-absorbed (like people do when they try to change someone’s unpleasant emotion) and Sadness just listened. Her response put Bing Bong back on track after he was allowed to feel his pain. Isn’t that part of being human? Experiencing the full range of emotions without being forced to stop.

    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I agree, there are no “wrong” emotions; sometimes we express them in unhealthy ways but what we feel is always valid. Don

  2. ‘Quiet presence’, I like that. My wife and I have lost two sons and know the value of that. When I was teaching at seminary how to console folks comes up. As you know, young minister/theologians want to jump in with all the answers they have learned from Erickson or Gruden when, as you well note, they need to keep their mouths closed, sit there, and be a shoulder.

    1. Shawn, I’m so sorry to hear of the loss of your two sons. So sorry. You’re right, when we’re hurting we don’t need platitudes or spiritual one-liners. Kind regards,

  3. Excellent advice. I would add that although life changing decisions might need to be made based on the crises for which we are comforting a person, I encourage one does not make major life decisions while in those initial hours/days of crises – for example sell their house and move in with great aunt so and so.

    Also, I want to share that as my 9 year old child was dying of cancer, a friend would come to our house, go directly to the kitchen, clean any dishes etc. and put the kettle on for a cup of tea. She never asked, she simply used her gift of compassion. Her life ministered to us immensely.

  4. So much truth to this. I have learned over the years to listen rather than speak when comforting others. Just being “there” matters most.

  5. Thank you Don. I try to teach these things too since I am a grief support specialist. I appreciate getting your emails.

    Charme Robarts
    First United Methodist Church
    Fort Worth, TX

  6. thank you for the wise words. the older i get the more hurting needy people i meet. will take your blog here and apply.

  7. This was very helpful for me.I have always been at a loss in what to do to comort someone, I normally am quite .It is good to know that , that is best to do.

  8. Loved this. Makes me re examine my motives in trying to comfort someone. Am I trying to comfort them or cover my feeling of helplessness and discomfort in their pain?

    1. Donna, you bring up a good thought. Am I comforting to truly give succor to the one who is hurting or just to fulfill my moral “duty.”

  9. This is so hard …………… People cry for all sorts of reasons and the responses shown here sort of assume that we already know that the person who is crying has been hurt by another person or an event in their life.
    Our response may also depend on how well we know the person who is crying?
    The person who is crying could be in pain or lost and disorientated and in need of assistance.
    Often we cry when we just can’t verbalise what is wrong.

    1. Angela, thanks for sharing your thoughts. You’re right, we often need to gently probe to see what’s going on with the person who is crying so our response can be proper. I do think, though, that whenever someone is crying they are hurting – emotionally, physically, or in another way. Don

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