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Illustration of a woman with long, flowing hair sitting on the ground with her knees pulled to her chest. Her eyes are closed, she frowns, and her cheeks are flushed. A hand reaches toward her offering help. Getty Images/iStockphoto

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How to offer help when you don’t know what to say

Be validating and specific when extending a helping hand.

Allie Volpe is a senior reporter at Vox covering mental health, relationships, wellness, money, home life, and work through the lens of meaningful self-improvement.

Periods of difficulty can impact anyone in life, no matter how put-together they might seem. When the inevitable happens — your friend’s sudden loss of a parent, your cousin’s unexpected layoff — it can sometimes feel awkward or difficult to bridge the gap and figure out how to offer help. However, the people most likely to provide a helping hand are often hesitant out of a fear they might say or do the wrong thing or are perplexed by what their hurting loved one even needs, says family grief counselor Jill Cohen. “A lot of times people think, ‘Everyone is bringing dinner, so I won’t,’” she says. “The truth is, if everyone’s thinking like that, it’s quite possible that no one’s doing it.”

Receiving positive social support is crucial to the human experience. Having people to lean on — and vice versa — can increase resilience to stress and blunt the effects of trauma and depression. Don’t let a concern for bungling your words or offering a potentially tone-deaf favor prevent you from showing up for your people. Here’s some advice on how to reach out and offer assistance to a loved one going through a difficult time.

Initiate a conversation with open-ended statements

Among the most helpful ways to support someone experiencing hardship is simply being available, says Roxane Cohen Silver, a distinguished professor of psychological science, public health, and medicine at the University of California Irvine. In her work studying reactions to personal trauma, Silver and her colleagues have found making a phone call and offering to visit are the simplest and most impactful forms of service.

What to say in those initial calls or texts? Cohen suggests, “How are you feeling today?” Because the inquiry is so open-ended, your loved one can answer honestly and as in-depth as they’d like. Questions that are too direct like, “Did you have a good day?” can seem cliché. “We don’t expect when someone is in crisis that they’re going to have a good day,” Cohen says.

“I’m thinking of you,” “You crossed my mind today,” and “I’m just checking in” are also helpful entry points, says licensed marriage and family therapist Kiaundra Jackson. These sentiments are quick, but not unfeeling, don’t require a response, and show your loved one you’re available should they choose to engage.

Consider the closeness of the relationship when weighing what to say and how to deliver the message. A best friend or a sibling grieving the death of a pet may warrant a face-to-face conversation while a text should suffice for a coworker going through a breakup. If you don’t typically make phone calls, it may take the other person by surprise if you’re suddenly calling them; stay consistent with your typical method of communication.

Open-ended statements and questions like, “I’m here if you need anything,” “How can I help?” or, “What do you need?” are too broad. Asking someone who’s upset or grieving what they need puts the onus on them to help you feel useful.

Validate their feelings, don’t minimize them

Whether the anniversary of a death in your friend’s family is nearing or they posted something vaguely emotional on social media, be transparent with why you’re reaching out. You can text something like, “I’m just checking in on you,” Jackson says.

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

Helpful phrases of validation include:

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

While well-intentioned, people are prone to minimizing others’ difficult experiences, making them feel like what they’re experiencing isn’t significant or their reaction isn’t appropriate. Those who revert to minimizing statements likely aren’t intending to be callous or cruel, but these platitudes can brush away the depth of pain for the person on the receiving end. Here are some minimizing phrases to avoid:

  • I’ve been there.
  • Just snap out of it.
  • Cheer up.
  • Everything happens for a reason.
  • It could be worse.

Follow their lead when offering support

It may be difficult to decide whether your friend who just got laid off wants emotional support or tangible aid, like career coaching or a gift card for takeout. Try to avoid acting on impulses you think would be helpful to you if you were in your loved one’s shoes. Instead, look at their responses for cues about how to proceed. If, after your initial “Thinking of you” text they respond with “Thank you,” there’s no need to do anything more, Silver says. “It’s important to be a listener and to be conscious of what messages the other person is giving,” Silver says, “and not to impose your own desires and expectations onto anybody else.”

How have they accepted and shown support in the past? This can be a sign of the types of aid they find helpful, Jackson says. Do gifts tend to brighten their day? Or are they the type of friend who is comforted by a deep conversation? Look to the ways they showed up for you when you were going through a tough time, Sahi says. If they suggested taking you out for happy hour and venting, this is a sign they might appreciate the same in return.

Consider the context of their life, too, says Nikki Lovell, the chief executive of Gather My Crew, an Australia-based app for coordinating assistance for loved ones in need. Do they live alone? Have kids or pets? Do they have a lot of medical appointments to attend? “You can make a specific offer to help that makes it clear to them that you have thought about this,” Lovell says, “and you are genuine in your desire to help.” For a parent caring for a sick partner, you might offer to make their kids’ school lunches or send a gift card for a meal delivery service. If you know a relative prefers to be alone in times of distress, showing up at their house with snacks may be too intrusive.

Provide realistic options for assistance

If your loved one is responsive and seems amenable to help, give them a few choices for how you can support them. Be direct and specific when offering a hand, Cohen says. Some suggestions:

  • Do you need help cleaning?
  • Want to go to a cafe and work on our resumes?
  • Can I treat you to a massage?
  • Is it alright if I handle bedtime with your kids this week?
  • Would you be up for seeing a movie next week?
  • I’d be happy to make you dinner tomorrow. Is that something you’d be interested in?

Be realistic in what you can provide, Sahi says. “We all have different capacities at different moments,” she says. You may be well-intentioned in offering to call your friend every night for a month, but this commitment may not fit with your schedule, so make sure to only put forth aid you can deliver.

Another helpful supportive tool, Sahi says, is reappraisal, or to use problem-solving techniques. However, the more distressed someone is, the less likely they will be comfortable with reappraisal, Sahi says. For example, helping someone brainstorm ways to move on after a death probably won’t go over well; suggesting a mock interview with a friend who recently lost a job is a more appropriate use of reappraisal.

In one of Sahi’s studies, participants were comforted by statements that focused on how things change over time. It may be helpful to tell a loved one that how they’re feeling now won’t be how they’ll feel forever. But again, only utilize reappraisal if your friend is open to advice or strategizing.

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

Inevitably, someone may graciously turn down your offers to assist. Maybe they’re not ready to face outsiders, perhaps they aren’t in need of what you can contribute. Don’t take it personally; your loved one isn’t insulting you, they’re likely still processing. Avoid making repeated proffers too soon, Silver says, but continue to check in after about a week with a simple “Thinking of you” text. Again, follow their lead and keep showing up.

“To be a support provider,” Silver says, “it’s both reaching out but also taking the signals as to what the person needs on their timeline, not on your timeline.”

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