How can you be there for someone when you don’t know what to say?

Stages of difficulty can strike anyone in life, no matter how composite they may seem. When the inevitable happens — the sudden loss of a parent of your friend, the unexpected dismissal of your cousin — it can sometimes feel uncomfortable or difficult to bridge the gap and figure out how to offer help. However, the people most likely to help often hesitate out of fear that they might say or do the wrong thing, or are at a loss as to what their injured loved one even needs, says family grief counselor Jill Cohen. “A lot of times people think, ‘Everybody’s bringing dinner, so I’m not doing it,'” she says. “The truth is, if everyone thinks that way, it’s entirely possible that nobody does.”

Receiving positive social support is critical to the human experience. Having people to lean on – and vice versa – can increase stress resilience and mitigate the effects of trauma and depression. Don’t let botching your words or offering a potentially unmusical favor stop you from showing up for your people. Here is some advice on how to reach out and help a loved one who is going through a difficult time.

Start a conversation with open statements

One of the most helpful ways to support someone in need is simply by being available, says Roxane Cohen Silver, a distinguished professor of psychology, public health and medicine at the University of California Irvine. In their work examining responses to personal trauma, Silver and her colleagues have found that the simplest and most effective forms of ministry are telephone calls and offers of visitation.

What should I say in those first calls or texts? Cohen suggests, “How are you feeling today?” Because the request is so open-ended, your loved one can answer honestly and in as much detail as they wish. Overly direct questions like “Did you have a good day?” can come across as cliche. “We don’t expect someone who is in a crisis to have a good day,” says Cohen.

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“Thinking of you,” “You came to my mind today,” and “I’m just getting in touch” are also helpful entry points, says Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist Kiaundra Jackson. These feelings are quick but not callous, don’t require a response, and show your loved one that you’re available should they decide to make a commitment.

Consider the closeness of the relationship when considering what to say and how to deliver the message. A best friend or sibling grieving the death of a pet may warrant a face-to-face conversation, while a text should suffice for a co-worker going through a breakup. If you don’t usually talk on the phone, it may surprise the other person if you suddenly call them. Stick to your typical method of communication consistently.

Open statements and questions like “I’ll be there if you need something”, “How can I help?” or “What do you need?” are too wide. Asking someone who is upset or grieving what they need carries the responsibility of helping you feel useful.

Validate their feelings, don’t downplay them

Whether the anniversary of your friend’s family death is approaching or they’ve posted something vaguely emotional on social media, be transparent about why you’re reaching out. You can write something like, “Just checking on you,” Jackson says.

Always validate their emotions by showing that you understand what they’re feeling, and never question their emotions or reactions, says Razia Sahi, a UCLA doctoral student studying the effects of social support on emotions and well-being. Done effectively, validation “can deepen your connection to that person and their feelings of comfort in their moments of need,” she says.

Helpful phrases of validation are:

  • This really sucks.
  • I hear you.
  • I can imagine that was difficult for you.

Although well intentioned, people tend to downplay the difficult experiences of others, making them feel that what they are experiencing is not important or that their response is not appropriate. Those who resort to derogatory statements probably do not intend to be callous or cruel, but these platitudes can wipe away the depth of pain for the person on the receiving end. Here are some minimizing phrases to avoid:

  • I was there.
  • Just out with it.
  • Cheer.
  • Everything happens for a reason.
  • It could be worse.
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Follow their lead when offering support

It can be difficult to decide whether your friend who just got laid off wants emotional support or concrete help, like career coaching or a gift certificate to take home. Try to avoid responding to impulses that you think would help you if you were in the position of your loved one. Instead, look at their answers for hints on how to proceed. If they respond with “thank you” after your initial “thinking of you” text, Silver says you don’t need to do anything else. “It’s important to be a listener and to be aware of what messages the other person is conveying,” says Silver, “and not to impose your own desires and expectations on anyone.”

How have you accepted and shown support in the past? This can be a sign of what kind of help they find helpful, Jackson says. Do gifts tend to brighten their day? Or are they the kind of friends who are comforted by a deep conversation? Look at how they showed up for you when you were going through a tough time, says Sahi. If they suggested inviting you to happy hour and venting, that’s a sign they appreciate the same in return.

Consider the context of their lives, too, says Nikki Lovell, chief executive of Gather My Crew, an Australia-based app that coordinates help for loved ones in need. You live alone? Do you have children or pets? Do you have to keep a lot of doctor’s appointments? “You can make a specific offer of help that lets them know that you’ve thought about it,” says Lovell, “and that your desire to help is genuine.” For a parent who is caring for a partner who is ill, you could offer: preparing school lunch for their children or sending a gift card for a meal delivery service. If you know that a relative prefers to be alone in times of need, showing up at their house with snacks can be too pushy.

Offer realistic support options

If your loved one is responsive and seems willing to help, give them a few ways you can support them. Be direct and specific when offering your hand, says Cohen. A few suggestions:

  • Need help cleaning?
  • Would you like to go to a coffee shop and work on our resumes?
  • May I pamper you with a massage?
  • Is it okay if I take care of bedtime with your kids this week?
  • Would you like to see a movie next week?
  • I would be happy to make you dinner tomorrow. Is this something you would be interested in?
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Be realistic about what you can offer, Sahi says. “We all have different capacities at different times,” she says. You may well offer to call your boyfriend every night for a month, but that commitment may not fit your schedule. So make sure you only provide help that you can provide.

Another helpful tool, says Sahi, is re-evaluation or the use of problem-solving techniques. However, the more desperate someone is, the less likely they are to be happy with a reassessment, says Sahi. For example, helping someone figure out ways to move on after death is unlikely to go down well; Proposing a mock interview with a friend who recently lost his job is a more appropriate form of reevaluation.

In one of Sahi’s studies, participants were comforted by statements that focused on how things change over time. It can be helpful to tell a loved one that they won’t always feel the way they feel right now. Again, you should only reevaluate if your friend is open to advice or strategy.

Don’t force yourself on someone who rejects your bids, but follow up in the future

It is inevitable that someone will graciously decline your offers of help. Maybe they’re not ready to face outsiders, maybe they don’t need what you can contribute. Do not take it personally; Your loved one doesn’t offend you, they’re probably still processing it. Avoid making repetitive offers too soon, says Silver, but follow up after about a week with a simple “Thinking of you” text. Again, follow their lead and keep popping up.

“Being a support provider,” Silver says, “is both reaching out and taking the cues of what the person needs on their timeline, not your timeline.”

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