Seeing a friend, loved one, coworker, or other acquaintance emotionally upset can be a heartbreaking experience.
It’s incredibly hard to know what to say to make the situation better. But knowing how to comfort someone who is crying or upset is a rewarding skill to have.
Oftentimes, we are unsure of how to approach someone because we are afraid of saying the wrong thing and making their situation worse. We might find ourselves stumbling over our words, or avoiding the person and any conversation altogether to save a stint of embarrassment on both ends.
Firstly, it’s important to realize that experiencing sadness is not particular to one person or one situation. And it’s not only for the weak-hearted.
Understanding that Sadness is Necessary
Comforting someone can sometimes be awkward, because sadness is a difficult emotion to process. However, psychologists say that sadness is necessary. We need to experience sadness in order to heal and move forward in our lives.
A lot of times, we may find ourselves refusing to deal with our feelings. Instead, we put them away for later, when we are alone and out of the view of others. We may not want to be seen as weak or pathetic, and so we never address what or why it is that we are grieving.
But it is better to get it out. Tears have been known to release the stress hormone that builds when sadness or grief is present. The tears may come late at night or early in the morning, but either way, it’s okay. It’s simply our body trying to process and make sense of the emotions the best way they know how, by getting them out.
These emotions are a universal experience. But comforting someone who is sad is normally where we are stunted in our responses. You may think there is nothing you can do for your grieving loved one or friend.
However, there are a few approaches you can use to offer solace, rather than just awkwardly patting them on the back and murmuring an “I’m sorry,” that you can try the next time you find yourself in a position of providing comfort to a friend.
Empathize with their Situation
Firstly, it’s important to think of how you might like to be treated if you were in a similar predicament. What sympathies might make you feel better? Use these thoughts as an example of how you might approach another person.
Then, take time to distinguish the situation the other person is in. Are they in need of comfort because of the loss of a job? A relationship that has hit a rough patch, a separation, or divorce? The death of someone close to them?
Each can require a different response and affect the person and their mental health differently. Grief is often related to a wide range of hard times we experience in our life.
Comforting Someone Who Is Grieving
Grief is an intense emotion that can feel extremely overwhelming, like a grey cloud constantly looming overhead. Grief can cause us to feel empty. It can make us feel as though we are isolated and alone because we’re not sure how to process the effects loss may have on our mental health.
If a friend of yours has experienced the loss of a loved one, it’s likely that your comfort will be a short-lived solace for them. This is because the grieving process is long. Usually between 12 and 18 months and each person grieves differently.
Often, there is no concrete solution to the death of a loved one. Therefore, solution or advice-based comfort is a bad approach here. Time and constant support or reassurance is the best way to help another person through a personal loss.
If the grief is caused by outside forces, for example, being laid off from a company they have worked at for years, the approach to comforting them can still be achieved with some of the same steps. Each approach is wholly unique, and some situations may require just a few of the tips listed below.
1. Listen first, then talk
When comforting someone, it’s important for us to use our best active listening skills. Here, we can show that we are listening not only by letting them talk first, but by our body language, as well.
Maintain eye contact, tilt your body toward them and nod as they tell you what has them upset. Don’t focus on what you are going to say or how you might ‘fix’ the issue. Show emotion, such as smiling or frowning to demonstrate concern, when it is appropriate.
Crossing your arms or getting distracted with your phone or something else that may be happening around you are signs that you aren’t listening. Additionally, it can convey to your friend or loved one that you don’t genuinely care about their feelings and what they have to say.
Instead, give affirmations such as “I know this is a difficult time for you,” or “I’m sorry you are going through this right now.” Allow them to feel heard.
You are there to minimize their pain in the most effective way that you can. So it’s best to listen to what is being said completely and thoroughly. Sometimes just getting it all out to another person is good enough. Being there for someone as a ‘shoulder to cry on’ can be a highly effective comforting measure.
2. Don’t assume they want advice
One of the biggest mistakes to make while trying to comfort someone is to think we can easily offer solutions to their problems.
If someone is upset, especially to the point of crying, the last thing they might want to hear is a simple ‘do-this’ or ‘do-that’ to whatever it is they are facing.
Being upset can make us feel helpless. When our emotions overwhelm us, nothing in that moment, feels like it can help what we are dealing with. Simple solutions may feel like our troubles are being swept under the rug or considered unimportant.
Don’t assume that you can offer them a resolution to all or any of their problems to make them feel better. It’s better to feel related to, than to feel as if someone is trying to teach a lesson. Avoid phrases that sound like, “Well if you had done this…” or “You shouldn’t feel that way because…”
However, some people will want a solution offered, or to hear what you think should be their next steps. Only offer it after you have listened to everything they have to say about the topic, first.
3. Understand their range of emotions
A lot of times, when a person receives life-changing news, such as the loss of a job, there is the added worry of how those around them will perceive them now that this has happened to them.
They may be upset about more than just the surface topic of losing their job, but also about how their friends and family members might judge them for what led up to them getting laid off-or fired. Not only do they have to deal with their own emotions, but judgement and prejudice from those in their social circles.
In addition to this, a grieving person may experience more than just sadness. They may be angry, guilty, relieved, obsessive, or reclusive. They may experience a flux and flow between all of these emotions within a short period of time. Give them time and be patient, and remember: grieving is different for everyone.
It’s also important to consider what the death of a loved one could be like for them. A big part of offering support is having empathy for the things you may not understand completely.
Consider that this may be the first time that this person has had to deal with something like this. By putting yourself in their shoes, you can make better sense of the situation and what to say.
4. Ask questions that can elicit a response
Maybe the person you’re trying to comfort doesn’t know how to tell you what’s wrong. Perhaps they are so emotional that they can’t find the right words, or they aren’t that great at expressing their feelings verbally.
This is a good opportunity for you to open up the conversation with questions that they can answer. This way, you can better understand the situation and offer your support and comfort.
Firstly, see if they want to talk in further detail about what has them upset. If they do, then proceed with gentle questions that provide you with a deeper level of understanding.
You can try something like, “I know that the loss of [person] was really tough for you. Do you want to talk about it?”
A question that leaves it up to them will open the floor to better conversation and let them know that you truly are lending your ear to them in their time of need. If their feelings don’t exactly make sense to you at first, that’s okay, too. You can ask questions that help them express the situation a bit more.
For example: “It sounds like you’re upset because of [situation]. Is that right?”
5. Show your support
Let them know that you may not have personal experience in what they are dealing with, but that you understand their feelings. Sometimes a few soothing words can do a world’s worth of help to another person.
Acknowledging your helplessness to their grief can also be a form of support. Letting the person know that you recognize you can’t ‘fix’ things for them, but that you understand, is often enough.
If applicable, you can also try to empathize with the person by offering a similar situation that you’ve been in where you felt the same as them.
“I also felt sad/upset/angry/ when [the situation] happened to me.”
It’s important here to not turn the conversation on yourself, but just use this tactic to let them know you understand and have been where they are.
You can try moving the conversation in a more positive direction, if possible, and let them know that you have also been through a similar situation, but it does get better. But don’t try to compare your stories or say that one was worse than the other.
A lot of times, there may be an awkward pause or silence. You might run out of things to say, and they may do the same. But it’s important to continue to be there for your friend or loved one, to allow them the time to express all of their pain and grief when they are ready.
Continued support is also important. Just because you talked to them today does not mean everything is fine and figured out, or that their mental health is all patched up.
Continue to reach out periodically, to do a check-in with them. They may have more to say since the last time you talked to them and more to unpack or discuss.
How to Cheer Them Up
If the situation seems appropriate, you can try to offer a positive response to their grief. Although your words and presence are great tactics because everyone processes their emotions differently, they may also want a distraction from their feelings, even if it’s a temporary one.
Sometimes taking a step away from the situation can be equally beneficial. Rather than harping on about the things that we cannot change, it helps to be reminded that there are still things that have, need, or can be done – otherwise life will continue to move on without us.
1. Comfort Languages
There are 5 comfort languages that most people are familiar with:
- Being heard
- Optimism and pep talks
The first two mentioned above are a way of offering support when listening and trying to understand. The last three are appropriate to use when the conversation has started to veer towards what the person wants to actively do in order to overcome their grief.
If they ask for your opinions on the situation, you can present one of these tactics to shift the focus off of their pain and to help them move forward.
2. Action steps
This is also known as problem-solving. Here, you can offer the solutions mentioned earlier that may have not been appropriate at the beginning of your conversation. Talk about a plan or lay out a few steps that your friend or loved one could take to continue moving forward.
If they have a plan or a few ideas already, make sure to support it and offer ways to help or strengthen it. It’s important here to recognize that all action steps, no matter how small they may seem, are helpful during grieving and can lift one’s mood.
Sometimes, your friend or loved one may just want something different to think about after your conversation begins to wind down.
You can offer a plethora of options in the moment or later on, when you reach back out to them again. Ask if they want to go and get dinner or drinks. Ask about their hobbies and offer to do an activity with them. Arrange a relaxing day at a spa or spend some time baking goodies that you can enjoy together.
Again, you can use your knowledge of the person and their likes and dislikes to pinpoint a distraction that would be appropriate and enjoyable for them.
4. Physical affection
Sometimes, we don’t want to talk or listen, we just want to be held.
Offer a hug with a few pats on the back if they are willing. Physical affection can have a major effect on the healing process because of the amount of endorphins that are released when we are in contact with another person. A hug can relieve stress and create a calming or relaxing feeling.
However, it’s important to consider your normal interactions with this person. If they are not usually a hugger, offering one can make the situation awkward.
Read their body language and also think about how the two of you have interacted before now. Sometimes just a pat on the back or a one-armed hug can do the trick as well, if you are used to keeping your distance from each other.
The Bottom Line
Listening is the first option of comfort you can offer a person. Lending them your ear can give them an outlet to talk and get some of their more pressing feelings off of their chest.
Acknowledge how they feel and that what they are experiencing is valid. Ask questions if necessary and try to get a true understanding of what your friend or loved one is dealing with.
Offer your support upfront, and continue to offer it down the road. Even if the friend seems like they are over it, they may have reverted to hiding it from other people because it seems too “old” to bring up again.
Remember that each person is different, so choose your tactic wisely and based on what you know about your friend. Some people may loathe physical affection and love the optimism in saying, “Get back out there and try again!” While some may not want a distraction and would rather address their feelings head-on by getting it all out on the table and being heard.
It’s okay not to know which tactic to use or know what to say when someone you love is grieving. The important part is being there and showing your continued support, after the initial situation and your talk together.
This can prove to the person that you truly love and care about them, and that you are going to be there to comfort them if they need you.