All the Wrong Ways to Offer Sympathy to a Friend

What do you say to a friend who is going through a divorce, has lost a spouse, or has been diagnosed with a serious illness? If you are at a loss for the right words in such situations, you are not alone. Perhaps you think divorce is not so common among people our age, but that is not the case. I have a friend in her seventies who is going through one after a long marriage. And it comes as no surprise that illness and death are becoming all too frequent as we watch our friends and family age.

When it comes time to express your concern or condolences to someone who is experiencing one of these life-changing events, how do you handle the situation? For most of us, this is difficult, and we may resort to cliches or, even worse, say something completely inappropriate. In AARP’s new online publication for women, called The Ethel, writer Linda Yellin tackles this sensitive subject in a frank article titled “The Death, Divorce and Illness Etiquette Guide: Here’s what to say and what NOT to say.”

“Our hearts are in the right place and our intentions are good,” Yellin writes, “but still — sometimes we end up scoring major points on the cringe-o-meter.” So, she begins her article by pointing out what we should never say.

  • Conveying condolences on the death of a spouse, “You’re still attractive. You’ll find someone else” (Timing is everything, if you have to say that) or “It was for the best”(When someone is grieving, and you offer this consolation, don’t be surprised at the reaction.)
  • Consoling a friend who is going through a divorce: “I heard rumors he was fooling around” or I never liked him anyway.” (Rude as these comments sound, I heard both way back in my younger days when my first reaction was to defend my almost-ex-spouse.)
  • Encouraging someone who is sick: “You’re so brave” (chances are your friend doesn’t feel brave; she just feels sick) or “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle” (this is only okay if you know this person’s religious beliefs. If you don’t, avoid these not-too-comforting words of comfort.)

There are many more wince-worthy efforts to be sympathetic that are neither helpful nor respectful. But if those are the wrong things to say, what are the right ways to handle these situations?

Yellin offers three suggestions. “Bring a meal. Give a hug. Say: ‘That sucks.’ Any one of those in any situation will be appropriate at any time. Just showing up and acknowledging that you’re concerned — being there — can say it all.”

I love this article. Linda Yellin is a person with common sense and a sense of humor, both of which are a great help in life’s difficult moments.