What Not to Say to People When They Are Sad

Hello, Fabulous Person,


Today’s #morningswithmadge video is all about what not to say to people when they’re sad. Humans have a natural tendency to want to rush in and fix things, to smooth wrinkles, to make sad stuff happy, dark stuff light, and bad stuff go away. There are two sides to this impulse. It hurts us to see other people in pain. On one hand, this is because we genuinely love and care for them and we want them to feel better. If we’re being honest, on the other hand, other people’s struggles act as a mirror that reflects our own fears about struggles we’ve endured or struggles we perceive as being possible for us. Fear is a powerful emotion. We live in a society where death and loss are denied, where people are deemed worthy based on professional ‘success’ or unworthy based on professional ‘failure’, where depression and other mental illnesses are stigmatized, where we don’t honor grief, sorrow, anger, and other complex emotions. We define success and failure in definitive and limited ways. Everything is filtered through our own experiences, colored by our lenses.

If you are going to be free, your freedom means that you do not avert your eyes from anything, in yourself or in anyone else. Freedom means to sit in awareness with what is. No aversion, no attachment.
— Ram Dass

When something is lost, be that a person or a thing or a dream or a job or our health…when we lose something, the grief that results from that loss is a process. Grief is how our brains deal with loss and help us process the fallout so we can release our attachment to the thing that has happened and move forward. If we don’t have the space to grieve, we are not able to release our attachment. This results in the emotions from the fallout becoming stuck, we’re still attached to the thing that happened. There is an intrinsic value in sorrow and anger, but our fear of other people’s sorrow and anger often results in us negating it. What people need while they’re grieving is compassion and unconditional love. They need to feel safe to dive into their sorrow and anger, to feel their feelings, and know that while they’re doing that we’re there for them. Just being there for someone else is the most powerful gift we can give them. When we see people, hear people, and love them as they are in any moment, we give them permission to work through the loss and find their way back to their joy. When we negate or dismiss people’s grief, often those feelings get shoved down and bubble underneath, never having been processed they can re-emerge in negative, destructive ways.

“I know exactly what you’re feeling! The same thing happened to me. I am going to tell you all about it now.”

When we respond to someone else’s loss with a story about our own, we’re making their situation all about us. It isn’t about us, it’s about them. We may have experienced something similar, but every person processes their emotions differently. We really don’t know what they’re feeling. However, having experienced something similar, we can offer them our empathy and allow them the space to process their emotions in the way that works best for them. Our stories are best served for another time, when it actually is all about us or when we are sharing stories with people about shared experiences.

My love for you has no strings attached. I love you for free.
— Tom Robbins

“When one door closes, another opens.”

Does it, though? Are you sure? It’s entirely possible that another door will not open. People become terminally ill, people die, people experience extreme physical limitations through illness or accidents. Their lifelong dream may not unfold. Sometimes a door just closes. Doors don’t open and close by themselves, and it may take considerable effort to find an exit and pry that door open. There’s nothing useful in this comment when someone is grieving.

“Cheer up! The sun’ll come out tomorrow! It’s okay! You’ll be fine!”

Everyone knows these platitudes hold truths, but sometimes it’s not okay, they’re not okay, and they aren’t going to be fine. Can we sit with someone in the truth that maybe it’s not okay and they’re not going to be fine, but love them and be there with them in that uncomfortable place? Can we honor their grief and allow them to be who they are in that moment, without rushing in to fix it?

To give and not expect return, that is what lies at the heart of love.
— Oscar Wilde

“Try to be grateful for all of the good things in your life.”

Of course, we should all feel gratitude and try whenever possible to focus on the good things. When we’re knee deep in the shit, though, this is another insidious way of negating our feelings. How dare we feel sad when we have so much about which to be happy! Can we feel gratitude and also feel sadness at loss? Yes, yes we can. Both things can be true simultaneously.

“It could be worse. Think about that person over there and the horrible things that happened to them.”

Yes, it could be worse. It could also be better! When we’re knee deep in processing grief, it can feel completely overwhelming. What we don’t need to add is guilt for not having had something worse happen to us. The bad thing that happened to us had impact, and we have every right to feel bad about it.

Fear is a powerful emotion that drives a lot of our reactions to difficult situations. It makes us say and do things that don’t reflect our intentions. Most of us are sincerely trying to be there for people we love when their dealing with loss. It’s good to take the time to evaluate our reactions, and adjust them to be more compassionate when possible. When we offer our friends our unconditional love, we are giving them and ourselves a powerful gift. We don’t have to fix them. It’s okay to sit with the sadness, to dive into the darkness, to feel the difficult feelings, this is how we process grief and release attachment. When people are sad, what they need more than anything is to feel connected, cherished, honored, seen, heard, and loved. Sometimes the best thing we can say is nothing, and the best gift we can give is our presence.

I want to know if you can sit with pain, mine or your own, without moving to hide it, or fade it, or fix it.
— Oriah Mountain Dreamer

Love is practiced in deeds, not words.