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It’s hard to know what to say sometimes. When a loved one seems to be suffering due to grief, anxiety, depression, or a multitude of other possible reasons, it can be difficult to find the right words. Saying the wrong thing might make them feel worse, and if you say nothing at all it might seem like you don’t care. Most of the time, it’s not so much about what you say, but about how you say it. Here are some things to keep in mind when talking to someone who seems to be going through a tough time.


The person experiencing suffering probably feels some level of isolation and loneliness in dealing with what is causing their pain. The brain is funny like that; the negative messages you tell yourself when you’re in pain are often untrue. The message I hear from most people who are suffering is, “Nobody understands what I’m going through.” On some level, that’s true. Even if you were in their shoes, you might feel differently due to your own ways of processing information. You can still be there for them as a support so they don’t have to suffer alone.


Simply letting the person know that you’re there–that they are not alone–can be helpful. It’s hard to overstate the power of being present. Sitting next to someone who is suffering shows them that you’re not afraid of their pain and suffering. You won’t run away or hide from them. You’re strong enough to be close by if they need a shoulder to cry on, a listening ear, or a hand to hold. 


Mental and emotional presence is just as important as physical presence. Being close to someone who is suffering without taking on the suffering yourself requires practicing healthy boundaries. Listening and validating someone’s pain helps them to feel heard and understood, which can lessen the suffering. Instead of, “That sucks,” try saying, “I hear you. It sounds like you’re going through a really tough time with this.” Let them clarify which parts are tough, and continue your role as a supportive, actively listening ear. 


Suffering happens in a vulnerable and unpleasant place. Exposing that vulnerability is part of the struggle. As a friend, understand that everyone processes their vulnerabilities differently. The best thing you could do for a friend who is suffering is to be there, try to listen, and show understanding. It’s not your job to solve other people’s problems, but when it’s someone you care about, being there while they figure things out is the most important role you can play.

An Thai, MS, Resident in Marriage & Family Therapy, provides couple, family, and individual therapy in our Sterling, VA office. Call or email today to set up your first appointment or a complimentary telephone consultation with An.