“Life is difficult, just look at the faces of the people who have tried it.”  —Anonymous

We have all been there. You find yourself in an “uncomfortable” situation where you just don’t know what to say to someone who has had a stroke, just been diagnosed with cancer or lost a child. Sometimes it can seem like an endless list of sad or terrible events. 

What should you say in these situations? It may feel awkward, but it is truly an opportunity to convey compassion and empathy. Not infrequently people end up saying things they shouldn’t say.  It is not that they intend to say the wrong thing, but more likely they just don’t know what to say. The one thing they should never say is, “I can imagine how you feel.” Unless you are a part of the same “club” as a person who lost a child, had a stroke or has been diagnosed with cancer, you really don’t know how they feel. Unless you have had a similar experience or you are a member of “my club,” I  don’t want  you to  say, “I can imagine how you feel.” You don’t know how I feel.

What should you do in these situations? I believe the most empathic thing you can say in any of these situations is, “I bet that this is difficult.” I wish that I could teach every physician, nurse and therapist to do this when they walk into a patient’s room. The patient may have had a stroke and they are frightened. Their family is anxious and uncertain about what the future might hold for them.  When you say, “I bet that this is difficult,” you validate their experience, because it is difficult. You’ve given them the opportunity to speak if they’d like to, and you’ve expressed true empathy. It’s about the most empathic and caring thing that you can say. 

Having a stroke, losing your job, going through a divorce or learning that you have cancer are all difficult.  Hopefully, you won’t have to walk in the same shoes as these people. But, remember, when you don’t know what to say to them, you can say, “I bet this is difficult.” You are well on the road to expressing empathy. 

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