#173: Express Kindness, Comfort, and Sympathy in English — for Times of Crisis and Grief

Apr 8, 2020 | Advanced Vocabulary, English Confidence and Fluency, English Conversation

If you’re like me, it’s difficult to find the right words or to know what to say to show kindness, comfort, and sympathy in a time of crisis or grief.

You may be at a loss for words.

Or you’re worried about saying the wrong thing.

This week, my student Rie said it perfectly. She said:

I would like to be considerate to others’ feelings, but I know any words are likely to cause misunderstanding especially in such an unusual tough situation. It’s difficult to choose right words even in my first language, much more in English. Because of social distancing, we can’t use non-verbal communication, like facial expression, or even hug although we can use video chat and FaceTime etc…It’s important to learn “what to say”and “what not to say” to show others our feelings​.”

With the COVID-19 pandemic, now more than ever, it’s important to show kindness and comfort.

But it also feels impossible. We can’t use hugs or touch.

In today’s Confident English lesson, I want to help so you know exactly how to express kindness, comfort, and sympathy in English during times of crisis and grief.

What to Say and What Not to Say to Express Kindness, Comfort, and Sympathy in English.

[Full Transcript]

Hey, it’s Annemarie with Speak Confident English. This is where you want to be every week to get the confidence you want for your life and work in English.

This lesson is one that I’ve wanted to do for a long time, but honestly, it’s a difficult one. In the past, I’ve had students ask me about what to say to a friend who’s going through a divorce to someone who loses a job or is experiencing a financial crisis.

 I’ve had students ask how to respond when a coworker has a terrible health diagnosis or when a neighbor loses a loved one.

I know that for me, finding the right words to use in those situations can be really challenging, and I’m sure that it’s true for you as well. You might be at a loss for words or worry about saying the wrong thing, but you also know that saying nothing isn’t a good solution.

So in this lesson today, I want to share with you what to say and what not to say to best express comfort, kindness, and sympathy to someone in a time of crisis or grief.

Before we get started today, I want to highlight that when we talk about how we respond in times of crisis or grief, there’s definitely language that you need to know how to use, but it’s also important to understand culture.

Everything I share with you today will combine the language you need plus what you need to understand culturally. We’re going to start this lesson with five things you should not say or do and I’ll give you examples as we go and then we’ll focus on the words you can use, the words you should use when you want to show kindness, comfort, or sympathy.

The first don’t is don’t ignore the person or pretend the tragedy didn’t happen. I know that finding the right words is difficult and honestly, sometimes there just aren’t great words to use, but ignoring the person you love or avoiding the topic will only make their pain worse and it has the potential to hurt your relationship.

The second thing you don’t want to do is say something like, “I understand how you feel” or “I understand what you’re going through.”

The truth is you never really know how someone else is feeling or how they’re grieving unless you have experienced the exact same situation with very similar circumstances. It’s impossible for you to know how someone is really feeling.

For example, if someone loses their home in a fire, there’s no way to imagine what that feels like unless you’ve also gone through it.

Our third don’t for this list is don’t try to find the silver lining in English. We have the expression to find a silver lining and what that means is to find something hopeful or positive in an unfortunate or gloomy situation.

When someone is grieving, they want to grieve and the best thing that you can do is to be by their side and support them as they go through the process, but it’s not the right time to try to find the silver lining, so it’s best to avoid things like, “I’m sure there’s a good reason for this” or “Something good will come from this.”

The fourth don’t is don’t give advice or try to solve a problem, especially when the problem is unsolvable.

This one is tricky because of course when someone you love is hurting, you want to help and there are things that you can do to be supportive and show that you care, which we’ll talk about in a moment.

But what I mean here is avoid giving advice on how to grieve because there is no rule book about grief.

Similarly, if someone has just been diagnosed with a terrible health issue like lung cancer, it’s not the right time to give advice on what to eat or how to exercise.

Even though you might know someone who has gone through a similar health issue or a similar financial crisis, the truth is what worked for one person may not work for another, so it’s not the best time for giving advice.

It is the right time to give support and to show care.

The last don’t on our list today may be a bit controversial. What I mean by that is you might disagree with me, but when someone is going through significant tragedy or grief, it is not the time to focus on faith, God or religion.

You might have a very strong faith or religious practice and maybe you know that the person grieving or going through a tragedy also has a strong faith.

But using language like “God always has a plan” or “God’s in control” can cause even greater pain.

Of course you have the best intentions and you want to be helpful, but during a crisis, focusing on religion or God can actually cause more pain and bring up bigger questions of: “Well, why did God want this to happen to me?”

So once again, the best thing that you can do is to be there as a support system to show care and give comfort without putting any rules or judgment on the right or wrong ways to grieve or go through a difficult time.

Now that we’ve talked about all of that, now that we know what not to do or say in English, let’s focus on what you can say to show kindness, comfort, and sympathy.

Number one is to say nothing but to show up. What do I mean by that?

Again, during a time of crisis or when someone’s grieving, sometimes there really are no words. It’s so shocking or so devastating that there’s nothing we can say to help but you can show up.

You can be there sometimes just sitting with your friend or loved one and doing it regularly is what they need. It might be going to their home every week just to sit with them for a little while or visiting them regularly in the hospital room and reading a book. Maybe all your friend wants to do is watch TV and pretend that everything is normal and your job is to go there and be with her at that time.

The key is to be consistent and show up regularly.

The second thing you can say when someone is grieving or going through a crisis is to acknowledge the situation and offer specific help.

We often say things like, “I’m here to help if you need me” or “Call me if you need anything.”

But I’m curious — if someone says that to you when you’re going through a difficult time, are you really going to call them?

Most of us don’t. We don’t feel comfortable doing that. We feel guilty or we feel bad asking for help. So a much better way is to offer specific help and you could start with something like:

“I’m so sorry and I want to help.”

 After you say I want to help give something specific and here are a few examples:

  • I’m making a huge pot of soup and I would love to bring some to your house so you have something for dinner tonight.
  • I’d like to bring dinner over every Tuesday night for the next few weeks.
  • I’m at the grocery store right now. What can I pick up for you and drop off?
  • I have some time tomorrow morning. Can I come by your house and would you like to go on a walk with me?

The key to all of these offers for help or support is to make it as easy as possible for your loved one to say yes.

The third thing that you can do and say is to take initiative and check in regularly.

What that means is, again, don’t wait for your friend to ask you for help or reach out to you. The truth is they probably won’t. So it’s your job to email them, text them, call them, send cards, or do whatever is necessary to show your support and do it regularly.

This could be something as simple as a text message that says, “I’m thinking about you. How are you doing today?”

Or sending a card in the mail every week. Again to let your friend, neighbor or loved one know that you care and that you’re thinking about them.

Number four is to show sympathy and this is the one that’s challenging for a lot of us because what words can you use? Here are several examples of things that you can say during a time of tragedy and grief.

  • I’m so sorry for your loss.
  • I wish I had the right words to say, but know that I care about you and I’m thinking about you.
  • I honestly have no idea what to say. I’m just so sorry.
  • I’m sorry you’re going through this.
  • I’m so sorry. This is an impossible situation/choice.
  • I’m so sorry. I can’t imagine what you’re going through.
  • I don’t know how you feel, but I’m here to help in any way that I can.
  • I’m so sorry. I wish I could take this pain away for you or I wish I could take this hurt or fear or sadness away.
  • I’m so sorry. I’m praying for you and your family.

Now. I know I mentioned not to bring in faith, religion, or God, but letting someone know that you’re praying or thinking about them can definitely bring comfort.

The last on our list of what you can do and say in English is specifically in a situation when someone has lost a loved one and you knew that person.

One of the best things that you can do is to talk about that person to share a favorite memory or story. If you’ve ever lost a loved one, then you know that during the time of grief and even afterwards, you love to hear stories and memories that keeps that person alive and helps you feel connected.

For example, you might say, “I was thinking about your dad today and I remembered this one time when _____.”

Or “Yesterday I was thinking about the vacation that we all went on together and I remember when _______”

And then again, share that specific memory that you have.

Before we finish, the last thing I want to share about this topic is that it’s always okay to keep your words simple.

For example, sometimes simply saying, I’m sorry is enough, and it’s the only thing that you can say.

What’s more important is being genuine and true.

As humans, we have an instinct or intuition for genuine compassion and sympathy. We know when someone truly cares about us and we know when they’re saying something just because they think they should.

So the best thing that you can do is use the words that are in your heart that you want to say.

I hope that this lesson was helpful to you. I hope that it gives you some ideas of things you can say in English.

I also have a question for you:

I’d love to know if there are expressions of sympathy, kindness, or comfort that have helped you in the past. If someone has said something to you in the past that was particularly meaningful, I would love to have you share it in the comments because again, so many of us struggle with finding the right words.

Thank you so much for joining me this week. 

~ Annemarie

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