4 Things You Should Never Say to Someone Who is Hurting

Note: This is a guest post from Mike Foster. Mike is the Founder & Chief Chance Officer of People of the Second Chance. Mike creates tools that help hurting people find freedom. Check out his latest course, Rescue Academy .

Have you ever said something you wish you could take back?

4 Phrases You Should Never Say

I once asked a friend if she was pregnant, and she wasn’t! Another time, I made a male friend cry due to my personal frustration with his choices.

Regardless of our best intentions, it’s easy to stick our foot in our mouth, especially when trying to help someone through hurt. Trust me, I’ve done it so many times I’ve lost count.

Though pain and loss are universal themes in all of our lives, we still struggle with knowing what to do, or what to say, or how to respond when it comes to helping others in their struggles.

What do I say to my sister who just miscarried her baby?

What advice should I give to my friend who is struggling with an eating disorder?

Am I responsible for fixing everyone’s problems?

How do I help people without shaming them or judging their actions?

Should I send a card, flowers, or cookies, or should I call when tragedy strikes?

It is true that, sometimes, the most basic questions leave us feeling confused or overwhelmed, and often prevent us from getting involved at all in people’s suffering.

But this shouldn’t scare us away from being rescuers to those around us. Instead, it should keep us aware of the power our words have.

I want to see a world full of not-so-perfect people rescuing other not-so-perfect-people from their hurts and hang-ups with words that are like grace-filled snow cones on a hot judgmental day.

Sometimes, it just takes a few small adjustments. For example, here are four things you should never say to someone who’s hurting.

1. Don’t say, “At least… ”

If someone has just experienced loss or is dealing with a tragedy, the last thing you want to say is, “At least you still have…”

For example, if your friend has just had a miscarriage, it’s not helpful to say, “Well, at least you have other children.”

It’s important that we never minimize anyone’s problems. This statement can actually make the situation worse. Not only that, it also makes you look incredibly insensitive.

Bottom line: Don’t ever use that phrase if you want to be a rockstar rescuer.

2. Don’t ever say, “Why did you… ?”

This statement puts blame, responsibility, and additional shame on the hurting person.

For example, if your friend has just told you her teenage daughter got caught with drugs, don’t respond with, “Why did you let her go to that party?”

If your friend’s car gets stolen, don’t say, “Why did you leave the door unlocked?”

Our natural tendency is to be curious about the details, but asking Why? questions in the middle of someone’s suffering usually isn’t helpful.

3. Avoid saying, “Don’t cry.”

Tears are a natural physiological release of psychological symptoms. We need to let others express their emotions and deal with grief the way the body intends.

Trying to control someone’s grieving process will never be effective. Usually, we say, “Don’t cry” because we feel uncomfortable and want to do something to alleviate the tension of the situation.

In this case, the best something to do is nothing. Simply remain silent, and let the body do what it needs to do.

Just remember: in that moment, it’s about the hurting person, not you.

4. Don’t ever utter the words, “God has a plan.”

This might be the most overused cliché that we default to when trying to help. Try to avoid using this statement if you can.

When people are dealing with serious grief or pain, don’t start problem-solving for them. Fight the tendency to try to comfort the person with a silver lining or by refocusing on the future.

A statement like, “I don’t even know what to say right now, but I’m so glad you told me” is much better than trying to fix the problem.

Allow people to grieve. Resist the urge to get to the happy ending by using clichés.

There’s a pattern here for all of us: becoming a good rescuer is less about what you can add and more about what you can subtract. Simplicity. Brevity. Silence. These are the brushes of a master rescue artist, an expert in the style of minimalism.

What was the most helpful thing someone did for you when you were experiencing pain? Share in the comments.

Mike Foster is the Founder & Chief Chance Officer of People of the Second Chance. He’s a best-selling author, speaker, pastor, and friend of imperfectionists. Mike creates tools that help hurting people find freedom. Check out his latest course, Rescue Academy.

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26 thoughts on “4 Things You Should Never Say to Someone Who is Hurting

  1. I’ve struggled with severe chronic back pain since a surgery I had in December of last year. Though it may not make sense, I was literally on my death bed at one point (couldn’t breathe) and was unable to move or walk for months. I was bombarded with suggestions of what doctor to see (none of them helped, by the way) or what remedy to use. While I appreciated advise when I asked for it, those who helped the most were those who came over and cleaned my house or helped in some way. They didn’t say “What can I do to help?” They looked for a need and said “Would it help if I ….” or “I’d like to bring a meal over.”
    It is also very helpful when someone is in tune to the Holy Ghost because they are promoted to know what you need without having to ask. Not too long ago I called a friend. She answered the phone and I said “Hi”. She then said, “You don’t sound good. Do you want me to come over?” I was violently sick from a type of pain pill the doctor gave me. She saved me that day and all I had to do was say “Hi.”

    1. hey shoma. these are great suggestions and awesome tips. totally love what youre saying and thanks for sharing your story. peace. mike.

  2. The most helpful after my husband died were the people who followed my lead. If I wanted to be left alone, they left me alone. If I wanted to cry with someone, they let me cry. If I needed help, they helped with whatever I asked, not deciding for me what help and when I needed it. And most importantly, they made me aware of their love , which helped me laugh again.

  3. Mike,

    In the moment when someone is hurt, it can be hard to instantly come up with something to say. The 4 things you mentioned are cringueworthy just to read. And I guess what they have in common is that they either minimise or deny the pain the person you care for is feeling.

    Instead, it’s better to allow them to feel the pain. Let them know that you are available whether they want to talk or just sit in silence.

    Thanks for sharing!

    Cheers,
    Anh

    1. hey anh…..i totally agree. people have to be able to feel what they need to feel. peace. mike.

  4. This is a good lesson for me. At 52 years of age, I admit I am bad about saying, “why did you”?. I’m not naturally empathetic or particularly compassionate, so sometimes I’m a bit of a bull in a china closet with my sensitivity. Now that I read this, I am going to consciously try and remove some of these insensitive phrases and questions. I enjoyed the article and appreciate having the opportunity to share it.

  5. the best thing people did for me was to listen -just to be there on the end of the phone and listen. It helped a lot

  6. Thank you for this. I’ll be sharing it! As someone who lost their mum and sister to cancer, then went through cancer I heard a lot of this. Now I write to encourage people in the midst of hard times and you’re right, “Oh, I’m so sorry, that’s terrible” is a great place to sit and love someone.

    1. hey niki…..glad the article was helpful and thanks for all you do to help others. peace. mike.

  7. I think we all may have been guilty of blurting out most, if not all these in the uncomfortable moment of realizing someone’s deepest pain. Sometimes the best thing to say is … nothing, just be silent, but BE there. I liked that you addressed my biggest pet peeve – trying to make God responsible for everything. We so often, in our clumsy fumbling for understanding, contribute to the pain, adding more confusion about a “loving” God Who, as part of His “plan”, would cause this suffering.
    The most helpful thing my brother once did for me, was to look me in the eye while saying: “I cannot fix the situation, but I can help you get through it. You are not alone”.

    1. hey stephan. i know i am guilty of saying these things before 🙂 being there is so key to helping. sometimes its all that is needed. blessings. mike.

  8. My Mother, brother, son and I all lived together. Two days before we moved house my brother passed which was 9 months ago, my mom, who was fighting cancer, passed away 5 months ago, then if that was not enough, two weeks after my mom passed away, a life long family friend passed away and then 2 months ago yet another friend passed away. But wait … there’s more, we have over the last 9 months had a few break in’s, and on top that, since i had been struggling to find a job I eventually decided to open my own company, which I registered a couple months before my brother passed away. So you can imagine the chaos and turmoil being experienced by myself and my son, and still experiencing, nothing like kicking a dog when it’s down.
    At first people were saying “sorry for your loss, take comfort in knowing that he is in a better place” and all those things that actually don’t really make you feel any better, but you smile, they mean well, and you know that they care, they are feeling helpless, and so try to offer some words of comfort. But since our lives just seemed to be getting worse, well, people were struggling to find words of comfort, and for obvious reasons I do understand why. I mean seriously, what do you say to someone like that? It became rather comical, as I found myself, more often than not, comforting them and re-assuring them that Jeremy and I would be OK.
    And just for the record, Jeremy and I will be OK, and how do I deal with it? Well, I pick up a pen and write!

  9. My daughter was in the Intensive Care Unit, paralyzed and on life support yet conscious and in pain and needing constant reassurance. I’d been up for about three days straight and was barely functioning. So my sister came to the hospital and said “I’ll stay with her,” and her husband drove me to their house where I could have a hot shower, a few hours’ worth of sleep (no beeping machines or alarms going off) and eat a real meal.

    That was HUGE.

    All told she was hospitalized for about two and a half months. Since I was there most of the time (it was out of state for me), they brought me one big meal a week (quiche, mac and cheese and the like) that I could heat up in small amounts, plus a big bowl of salad. Also huge.

    While my daughter ultimately did recover, she has had some lasting physical and psychological issues that have caused people to say the dumbest well-meaning things imaginable. So I agree with you: Don’t try to tell people how to feel. Don’t try to jolly them out of their grief or fear. To do so is not only patronizing, it gives the distinct impression that your grief/fear is an inconvenience to those who supposedly love you.

    Understand: I know that’s probably not what they’re saying. But it sure sounds that way.

    1. hey donna….i love what your sister did….what a beautiful act of love in your time of need. mike.

      1. Agreed! I was very fortunate, given that I had to fly down to Seattle from Alaska on short notice. I had very few resources — but I had the ones that mattered.

  10. The best thing people did for me when I was going through really terrible phases was just being there for me, treating me with the same love and respect even when I was behaving badly with them (I was hurting and didn’t realize how bad my behavior with my best friends had become), giving me space yet never leaving me alone, being a source of moral support. None of them said any of the above statements. After reading this article I realize that I am sometimes guilty of saying the “At least….” or “God has a plan…” things. I will be more careful in future. Thanks for sharing !!

  11. Love this post and your work, Mike. If people are looking for additional resources, I also wrote a best-selling book on this subject (https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0194J7F64). I encourage everyone to check out the Rescue Academy and get support/become educated, so we can better help the people we love in times of crisis.

  12. The best thing that could ever happen for a hurting person who is crying out to God is to hear the words, “Go in peace. And may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of him” (1 Samuel 1:17).

    Honestly, I think too many Christians get hung up on suffering a thorn in the side and saying, “His grace is sufficient for me,” that they forget that our god is a god who answers prayers–even “selfish and fleshly” prayers that have to do with bearing children. Or finding a spouse. Or being spared a deadly disease.

    Of course “not everyone blah blah blah yakkitty shmakkitty,” but that doesn’t mean we lose heart! Jesus promised that we must ALWAYS pray and NEVER cave in. He promised justice in behalf of the downtrodden. But he also wondered if he would find faith on the earth (In other words, if he does you a solid, will you also stay faithful to him?)

    May God grant the requests of his people and may all the suffering find the oasis of peace they seek

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