After You Say ‘I’m Sorry’


I WISH I’d had a few more good responses after “I’m sorry” upon hearing my friend’s recent bad news about a family member.

What comes next can be challenging—and people often avoid uncomfortable circumstances out of fear they might say the wrong thing, according to Rutgers sociologist Deborah Carr.

Avoidance is the wrong approach, Carr said in a Live Science panel, because social support is “the most important factor” for helping people cope with any problem from terminal illness to divorce.  To help the sufferer feel less alone in their grief, share any positive memories you have if the news concerns someone you know or knew.

When sending condolences, do it “as soon as you learn,” advises etiquette expert April Masini on her website Ask April.

In a panel convened by the New York Times, Masini warned against using social media because comments there can look like the writer’s attempt to get credit for themselves, while “comforting the bereaved becomes a secondary goal.”

Wake Forest sociologist Amanda Gengler on Live Science disagreed: Contact the person as you normally would, including by phone or email.

Also, make specific offers to help—anything from bringing dinner on Tuesday to binge-watching Netflix—and when possible ask “if they want company or if they would rather have some time alone,” said Gengler.

What should be more general are expressions of concern such as “how are you doing this week?” said Cleveland State University sociologist Linda Francis.  This way you’re telling the person you’re there while allowing them to take control of the conversation and share as much or as little as they want.

Asking questions is always better than offering answers.  Questions give people “a chance to share their experiences and voice their concerns without judgment,” writes Suzanne Leckie on Sane.

Empathy— awareness that the other is suffering —is what you want to convey, rather than pity, which can make a sufferer feel more helpless.  But empathy can be overdone:  identifying too closely with the other can cause you to imagine suffering that is not theirs.  Also, taking on another’s sadness can make you feel too depressed to take helpful action.

The long list of what not to say begins with: don’t minimize or invalidate the other person’s feelings with comments or clichés, such as “look on the bright side.”  Forced cheerfulness can make the speaker feel better, rather than the sufferer, and risks shutting down the conversation.

It’s good to be encouraging as long as you’re not being unrealistic, said Francis.

Also don’t make it about you, Massini advised.  “Avoid referring to your own experiences with the death of a loved one.” Definitely do not try to one-up sufferers by telling them about someone who is worse off.

Another big don’t: unsolicited advice.  Someone who’s heard a bad diagnosis is getting enough information from their doctors, who know the facts of their condition—and from the questions they themselves ask. The best solutions are generally reached by the sufferer, according to Leckie.

When depression is the problem, though, it can be helpful to mention changes you’ve noticed, such as someone being more reluctant to make plans with you.

All communication should include “no need to reply.”  Sufferers can be overwhelmed or exhausted by so many emotional messages and so many offers to help. And they can feel pressured when those with the best intentions seem competitive about being the most helpful.

Anyone at a loss for words can find inspiration from sympathy cards or in sample condolences online. Or from condolence expert Emily McDowell, creator of “Empathy Cards,” on her website or in her books, including the recent There’s No Good Card for This.

The key here is that individuals are so different—both bearers and receivers of bad news.  When asked, a close friend told me her favorite response was food left on her porch, something that didn’t spoil like trail mix—so she didn’t feel the obligation to see or talk to anyone that she would if given advance notice of plans to drop something off.   She would rather choose the friend and the time that works best for her—when she’s ready to talk.

I wish I’d known about her preferences earlier when she was suffering. People who’ve been through painful experiences can help friends by talking about what helped them the most.

The most challenging for me is the surprise at hearing bad news—almost always the case—that makes me forget everything I’ve learned to say.  Hence a new plan: Collect responses I might want to give and keep copies close at hand.

—Mary Carpenter

Every Tuesday in this space, well-being editor Mary Carpenter reports on health news you can use.


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