Reality Check: To Speak or to Avoid?

Illnesses, losses and tragedies happen. When you know someone who is experiencing a significant difficulty, it can be hard to know what to say.
How do you react when you see that person coming down the sidewalk? Do you think, “Oh no! What do I do?” In these days of masked faces, it may seem easier to look away; to hide in plain sight. Maybe I won’t be noticed.
Difficult situations bring up valid questions. Is it better to talk to the person about the situation? Or should I avoid the conversation, and even the person, altogether?
We can come up with rationalizations for both. We could justify avoidance with, “I’m sure she’s busy; I don’t want to remind her of the problem; I wouldn’t want to be nosy; I might blurt out something that makes things worse;” etc.
It’s easy to justify avoidance, isn’t it?
However, there’s also reason to acknowledge our discomfort but muster the courage to speak anyway. If we want someone to know that we care, we need to find a way to communicate it.
If we set our standard to “nothing short of perfection will do,” we may avoid saying anything till we’ve come up with the perfect sentiment. In other words, never.
I have only imperfect ideas to offer here. However, if you’re going through a difficulty, would you rather have an imperfect, heartfelt conversation or none at all? Even imperfect words can be more helpful than no words.
If you find yourself completely wordless, here are a few suggestions. A particularly honest opening is: “I’ve heard your news and I don’t know what to say. Would you like to talk about it?”
Asking permission—asking whether someone wants to talk or not—is important. Different people want different things. Some may be delighted to have a chance to talk about their situation; others may truly prefer not to. My opinion is that the person in the difficult situation gets to choose whether to discuss it or not.
What we do may “say” more than what we say. “What can I do to help?” is a great question, providing you are prepared to follow through with the offer. Specific helps such as running errands, getting groceries, or even paying a visit may be more supportive than a generic, “Call me if you need anything.” Practical actions can be more effective than pleasant words.
Offering advice has mixed value. It might be hard to hold back from saying, “If I were you, I’d do this…” or “You should…” Think about it. How enthusiastic are you when someone gives you unsolicited advice?
If you truly believe that you have helpful advice, I’d suggest you first ask, “Would you like my advice?” If the answer is no, then take it as good practice for accepting another’s wishes.
Simple offers can help: “Let’s do something fun;” or “Could I buy you a coffee?” Regardless of what we manage to say, the message is that we’re here to support you even when things aren’t good.
A big thank you to Patty for suggesting this topic. Have you been on either side of this type of situation? What did you find helpful?

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