Sorry to hear that

What to say to a grieving friend

Unexpected situations occur throughout the entirety of one’s life and that can include a parent getting sick. Parental sickness is not limited to just parents with terminal illness, it may also be something less definite- like contracting COVID-19. 

The conversation around dying has always been taboo so the conversation can get awkward fast. So when a friend’s parent gets sick what are you supposed to say? Is there even anything to say?

When at a loss for words, the instinct may be to say “I’m so sorry to hear that”. Oftentimes people don’t have enough experience for them to be able to relate to another person’s grief, which can make it difficult for them to offer empathy. The refrain and similar ones are overused and can come across as ingenuine. While the statement is polite, it can leave the person on the receiving end with the feeling that you felt obligated to say something. 

Saying “I know how you feel,” even if you’ve been through a similar situation, can accidentally make your friend feel invalidated. Although everyone at one point or another may face a parent being sick, everyone’s experience is an individual, personal ordeal and processed in their own way. Portraying that you understand what another feels while they are under such a deeply stressful circumstance, and claiming to feel the same way, can be invalidating.

While it may be difficult to find the right words to console a friend, the biggest mistake to make is not saying anything at all. So what can you say? You can ask non-invasive questions such as: “Can I do anything to help?”, “How can I make things easier for you?”, “Do you wanna talk about it?”, or “Do you want a distraction ?”. The power of non-intrusive questions is incredible because you can show that you care without sounding like you’re exchanging routine niceties. 

It is important to make sure to keep including your friend. Sometimes it’s most helpful to just give someone a break from it all and just let them do what they always do. The distraction of a normal lighthearted evening with friends can make a massive difference.

Generally incurable and ongoing, chronic diseases affect approximately 133 million Americans, representing more than 40% of the total population of this country. So in a school with nearly 2,000 students, you probably know one or two people whose parents have a terminal illness whether they’ve told you or not. So not saying anything even if it makes you uncomfortable can isolate someone who probably already feels alone. 

Admit that you don’t know what to say. Sometimes just admitting it up front shows that you care enough to want to say the right thing. For example “I don’t know what to say, but I just want you to know that I love you”. You don’t have to sound perfect because the truth is there’s only so much you can do.

The best thing to do is do, don’t say. Anyone can say “I’m here for you” but who really means it? You can say a million nice things to someone whose parents are sick but that’s not a confirmation that any of it is truthful. 

So first comes practical help and then emotional help. Providing practical help can be helping with errands, gifting home-cooked meals, or even just giving flowers. Sometimes practical help is just being there to listen, to talk and to hug. Practical help can even be just bringing your friend a cup of coffee or a donut or something on a morning when you know they’ve had a rough couple of days. A general offer of help can be hard to take someone up on so offer specific ways to help. Physical demonstrations that you care will always surmount any words you will be able to say.

Call or text every once in a while. You might not be able to fix the problem but you can let that person know they are not alone. Having a good support system makes a world of difference when someone is dealing with the isolating world of terminal illness treatment. So call with a funny joke or just say “hi.” Show them that you care, give them a chance to get their mind off things, listen when they want to talk, but most importantly let them have their space when they need it.

There are no right things to say. There are no perfect words. Sometimes in a situation like this people get so caught up in trying to say the right thing that they say nothing at all, and that’s worse. So don’t try to find the perfect words, just be there. Be there in whatever capacity you can be in. Your friend does not expect you to say the perfect thing. All you need to do is show that you’re actively there for them. After all that’s what friendship is all about – riding the rough with the smooth – sticking around for the long game even when it feels like really hard work.