Seeing someone else in pain is upsetting and disheartening, but it can also be confusing: How should you react? What should you say? What's the best way to support this person without making her feel worse? Sometimes our apprehension is so strong that we simply withdraw, worried that we'll accidentally say something hurtful and convinced it's better to say nothing at all. There's no one-size-fits-all solution to consoling a person in crisis - every sufferer is different. But from my conversations with the spouses of wounded veterans I've learned a few things that these women always appreciate hearing ... and a few that they be happy to never hear again! Let's look at the best practices first:
1. Say, "I am sorry for your pain." So simple, but so important. While some grievers prefer to deal with their feelings alone, nearly all appreciate being acknowledged and validated. This short, expressive phrase is an easy way to show your support and sympathy.
2. If you genuinely mean it say “What can I do to help?” Don't make this offer if you're not willing to see it through; Saying you'd like to help and then flaking out is worse than never offering in the first place! But if you've got the willingness and capacity, ask, and give your friend the opportunity to speak up and let you know what you can do for her. If she says “I don’t know,” then offer a few realistic suggestions: A night of free babysitting, a monthly coffee date, help with errands, or bringing over some pre-made meals.
3. Ask, "Is it OK if I call you once a week?" Since you have no idea what she’s going through, just being there to listen is a great first step. Some grief may seem inconsolable, but offering yourself as a sounding board can help ease the healing process. Active listening with genuine concern, compassion and interest is a fantastic way to express love.
All three of these suggestions are helpful but unobtrusive, and most people in pain would be grateful to hear any of them.
These next three, on the other hand, may seem helpful in the moment, but can be hurtful or damaging in some situations. So please, don't say:
1. “God has a plan.” One woman who was told this said in return “And it’s a fucked up plan.” When someone is in crisis mode she doesn’t need pat answers like, “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.” Although there is a time when these words of encouragement may be helpful, they can be dismissive and patronizing when we don’t even know what a friend or loved one is going through. We may know inside that everything happens for a reason, but nobody in the throes of grief or upheaval wants her feelings oversimplified.
2. “Please don’t bring your injured husband around my children, he'll scare them.” One woman told me she was asked not to bring her wounded husband to his best friend's deployment party because the wives believed their children seeing a disabled warrior would frighten them too much. It's understandable to want to protect children from the idea that their father might be injured when he goes off to war, but ostracizing wounded veterans and their families rarely achieves this. Surprisingly, some wives of wounded warriors tell me they are cut off from other military wives, as some women can’t handle the nightmare of imagining that their husbands might get hurt, too.
3. Endless suggestions to "fix" her problems. Offering to help can be an act of kindness, but pushing solutions on someone who just needs to vent will overwhelm her. And in many cases, spouses of wounded warriors are acutely aware that nothing is going to "fix" their lives or problems, so making endless suggestions can feel insulting. Don’t try to make a quick fix out of it. Be there and genuinely try to understand. Don’t try to solve their problems. Offer love and patience and support.
Many of these suggestions (and anti-suggestions!) can be helpful in a variety of situations: Death of a loved one, painful divorce, even getting laid off from a job. But they're essential to keep in mind if you know a family with a wounded warrior. Do your best to be open and accepting, and remember that helping someone else cope with pain can be as simple as loving and listening.