Speaking of saying the right thing, here are three situations that have me stumped.

Yesterday, I posted eight tips for saying the right thing. As I was thinking about it later, I realized that there are three situations that have me stumped. I just don’t know the right thing to say. If anyone has any suggestions, I’d love to hear them.

1. Crazy behavior. When bad things happen, or in difficult situations, people sometimes act in erratic, unproductive ways. A divorced friend swears by Abigail Trafford’s Crazy Time; Surviving Divorce and Building a New Life as the best book about doing through a divorce; it argues that it’s very common to go through a “crazy time” after separation. During this “crazy time,” “in addition to widespread anger and depression, researchers found a startling incidence of profoundly disturbed behavior.” I’ve seen this happen myself.

Is there a way for a friend gently to suggest when someone is acting crazy? I don’t mean the situation where a person has a distorted picture or a biased view (who doesn’t?); I mean when people are doing things that are actually destructive: a doctor who changes her husband’s chemo prescription without consulting the doctor in charge; a husband who dumps all his wife’s possessions out the window of their tenth-floor apartment. Is there a way for a friend to intervene, without alienating a person who needs a lot of support?

2. The close acquaintance, or the distant friend. I find it harder to find the right words to say to someone who is a close acquaintance, or a friend with whom I’ve fallen out of touch, than to a close friend. How do you show sympathy and support for someone you don’t really know very well? On the one hand, there’s a natural impulse to shy away from someone in pain, which we must fight; on the other hand, the fact is, it’s hard to know what to say or how to act when you’re not already a close part of someone’s life.

3. Usual interests. When someone has lost a job, received a terrible diagnosis, or otherwise is going through some very difficult period, I’m never sure how much to raise topics that would usually be interesting to the person, but seem trivial in light of what’s going on. I remember in one memoir of catastrophe, someone dying of cancer remarked how much she loved it when people would bring her bits of office gossip; it made her feel part of normal life. On the other hand, I worry that that kind of talk seems self-centered and inconsiderate when someone is facing a great personal challenge.

I’m eager to hear people’s suggestions. What have you found is the most helpful approach? If you’ve been on the receiving end, what kind of conversation comforted you most?

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  • SSS

    I am just coming out of a multi-year rare and unusual illness. I have lost my job, many friends who were truly only bystanders to my real friends, and to a great extent my sense of who I am in the world. I was very ill but mostly at home. On good days I would walk the quarter mile to the post office to get the mail. The postmistress did three things consistently: she touched my hand and said something positive about the way I looked or what I was wearing, she threw away all my junk mail after she realized how hard it was for me to make that simple sort and to carry a heavy bag, and every day she told me it would get better. I had been getting the mail at this post office for 16 years and most days barely had said hello. I had not earned her simple and magnificent kindness. It was simple. It was kind. It was easy. I knew I was much better when junk mail reappeared in my life. I have thanked her enough times for her to tell me “enough.” This taught me a very important lesson. It isn’t the big things that sustain us… It is the small loving gesture like sorting out the junk mail.

  • Lucy

    Hi Gretchen,

    I have experienced all three of these, and I have a couple of rock solid suggestions, and the rest is a bit “it depends”.

    I’ll start with the one I am most certain of. When my father was dying of cancer, he said the single nicest thing anyone could do was to ring him and chat about normal stuff, as if he was still a human being, rather than only a cancer patient. He said he spent so much time thinking and talking about his cancer with his doctors, and in his own head, that the humdrum was wonderfully diverting, and reminded him that his cancer didn’t have to define him.

    The next one is about distant friends. Again, this connects to my dad’s death. Getting messages of support – written and by phone, from people who had dropped out of our immediate circle for many years, was wonderful both while he was alive and after he died. A distant friend lost his father shortly after I did, and I was able to draw on my own experience and make the call to offer my condolences and let him know people were thinking of him. I hope he found it helpful at a difficult time. I think sending a message of support can rarely be a bad thing,as long as it isn’t too mournful, or doesn’t fall into the trap of being gossip seeking. Just a simple: “we’re thinking of you, let us know if there is anything we can do”, or if you’re close, popping round with a meal, but not staying to ask for the gory details.

    As for the crazy behaviour… this is where I think it depends. Sometimes it might come down to deciding if the risk to the friendship is a smaller risk than that of not saying something. Here I have witnessed a psychiatrist changing a patient’s prescription on the strength of testimony from another mentally ill patient. I said my piece, but had to recognise that I could do nothing more that that. Whether the other person chose to act was, ultimately, up to them.

    Thank you for your wonderful blog, by the way.