What to Do and Say When You Don’t Know What to Do and Say

Supporting Others Through Tough Times

Dan Foster
10 min readNov 30, 2023

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Image by wildpixel on iStock

Sitting around the lunchroom table at work, the usual banter and lighthearted chatter ensued. It consisted mainly of complaining about the workload, whining about this manager or that manager, and ribbing each other for the various mishaps that occur at work — all friendly, of course.

Politics and religion aren’t discussed.

My husband and I separated this week,” said one lady out of the blue.

Well, the room fell silent; people were suddenly staring at the floor, and if there had been crickets in the room, you would have heard them chirping. This lady had committed the cardinal sin — she had mentioned something painful, and now everyone was uncomfortable and at a loss for what to say.

Finally, in a heroic attempt to break the tension, I piped up. “I’m so sorry to hear that. Is there anything we can do to support you at the moment?” I like to think I threw a lifeline to a sinking ship of social discomfort.

Reflecting later on this lunchroom incident, it occurred to me that although hurting people need help and emotional support, we often retreat from them because we feel ill-equipped when it comes to supporting someone who is going through grief, pain, or loss. We simply don’t know what to do or say. We don’t try to make things better because we fear that we will make them worse.

Three months ago, my wife was diagnosed with Stage 4 Bowel Cancer. In that time, I have seen some of the best of humanity. The support we’ve received from friends, family, and even strangers has been overwhelming. However, I have also noticed, amongst others, a real awkwardness, as if they don’t know what to say or do. Do they mention the “elephant in the room,” or do they say nothing at all?

When I celebrated my birthday recently, there were people who didn’t wish me happy birthday because they felt, given the circumstances, it was inappropriate to wish me happiness during a time of such sadness. When it comes to knowing what to say to hurting people, the struggle is real.

Therefore, I trust that my present suffering qualifies me to share with you what does and doesn’t work. I hope this…

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Dan Foster

Writer, Poet, Blogger: Tackling life, faith, culture, religion, politics, and spirituality. Connect with me: https://linktr.ee/DanFosterWriter