What to Say or Do in Difficult Situations

We have all been there – on the other side of someone sharing difficult news, and we don’t know what to say, how to be, or what to do.  I know my mind races with phrases and words strung together I am hoping will work.  Sometimes I am so focused on saying the right thing, I am not actually listening to the person sharing.  Ugh.

Most of us don’t like being uncomfortable, and when someone shares difficult news, it can put us in an uncomfortable place pretty quickly.  It is understandable.  We are trying to be there for someone, and not say “the wrong thing”.  Below are a few of life’s situations that may come up along with thoughts on what to say…and not say.

Loss of Job

Losing a job can wreak havoc on our self confidence.  It is never easy to be let go even if the person ends up being somewhat relieved.  This is a time to offer your belief and support.  A lack of confidence calls for uplifting encouragement, and listening.  It is not uncommon for friends and co-workers to want and need a listening ear.  Let them know you are listening by reflecting back what you hear, and that you understand.

Saying something along the lines of, “I know you have what it takes” can go a long way in restoring someone’s confidence.  Also, make a point of listening/looking for opportunities that may be a fit for them.  People genuinely want to help others so don’t be shy about looking for opportunities to connect people.


Being with someone as they face the loss of a loved one is not easy.  The death of someone brings up our own mortality, and can make it very hard to be with someone facing their own loss.  “Being with” without expectation is crucial here.  There is nothing anyone can say to bring the loved one back, but there are things we can do to help.

Make a firm offer to help versus saying, “Let me know how I can help.”  People experiencing a loss are not always equipped to assess a situation, and make a specific request.  If you know the family or friend needs meals, offer to organize pulling meals together.  If children need to be picked up, make an offer to help in that area.

When supporting someone during a loss, remember that their grieving is not under a specific timeline.  The grieving process is different for everyone.  Remembering birthdays, anniversaries, and special occasions your friend shared with their loved one is also important.  People are sometimes afraid to bring up the loss for fear of upsetting their friend, but often, it is an opportunity to remember the special times and life of the person they lost.

End of a Relationship

We have all faced the end of a relationship.  I still remember my first crush, the few weeks we “dated”, and the ending.  It was a roller coaster ride of emotion.  I was sad and upset, and I still remember my dear friend at the time being supportive.

Not all relationships end with sadness, however.  Assuming how someone is feeling about a break up is a rocky way to start the support process.  Ask them how they are feeling.  Ask them how you can help, and what they need from you.  Not everyone processes the same way, so asking how your friend/family member is doing is paramount to understanding where they are in their processing, and how you can support them as they want to be supported.


If you haven’t experienced the loss of a miscarriage, it may be hard to relate, but that does not mean you cannot tap into loss you have experienced in your life.  Accepting loss is a process, and filling a loss with sunshine and rainbows is not helpful.  Avoid trying to move someone through the process by saying things like, “You’ll get pregnant again, you’ll see”, “These things happen, it is nature’s way of taking care of things”.  Minimizing someone’s loss is completely not helpful.

Avoid saying any sentence that starts with the words “at least”.  What is helpful is to share you are thinking of that person, and that you sorry for their loss.


Facing a friend or family member that has a long term illness is challenging.  People with cancer have shared that it is a lonely illness because so many friends and family members avoid calling, writing, and visiting for fear of saying the wrong thing.  That can leave someone who is dealing with a debilitating illness feeling abandoned.  It is okay to admit that something sucks.

As with each of the examples above, listening to someone who is facing a long term illness is helpful.  Asking them about their experiences, and how they are today is helpful.  As with any big impact life scenario, a person’s status changes daily.  What they may have not needed yesterday, they may need today.

If you are searching for on-point messages on dealing with difficult news, and you don’t know how to say what you want, check out Emily McDowell’s studio.  She has lots of options for cards that say just the right thing during difficult times.

Putting It All Together

Life doesn’t come with manual, and we all stumble when faced with news that is hard.  The best thing you can offer is empathy.  While you may not have faced the exact same situation, we all know loss, upset, anger, loneliness, frustration, and sadness.  Tap into your own experiences where you felt something similar, and offer empathy.  Empathy says, “me too”, and validates what another person is going through.  Remember, their difficult situation is not about you.  Ask how they are, and listen.



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