what to say

Last week I wrote a post on what not to say which led to great advice from so many of you, especially on what to say. So, as promised, what to say and do when someone is given more than they can handle…

I’m sorry
When you don’t know what to say these two words go a long way and cover much. When tragedy strikes we can’t make sense of it and you know the person traumatized can’t find sense. We don’t need to define the why of it all. I know a heartfelt I’m sorry meant so much to me.

This is awful
A high school friend came to see me. I hadn’t seen him since he graduated the year before I did. He stood by my hospital bed and cried, wiping his face. “I’m so sorry. This is awful. This shouldn’t have happened. Not to you.”
My friend didn’t know I needed his tears. Everybody came in strong, breath sucked in, and bodies rigid. To have someone let their emotions go unchecked relieved me. This is bad. Please, someone. Tell me this is bad. I was devastated and, for a few seconds, I wasn’t alone.
We don’t need to gush about how awful it is, but stand in someone’s pain with them. Side by side, shoulder to shoulder; ease their burden.

We want to do something, anything to help. We ask, “What can we do?”
While I was in the hospital enduring surgery after surgery my parents stood guard, rarely leaving the concrete walls. They barely ate and couldn’t begin to think about what to eat. So, friends and extended family cooked and baked. They didn’t ask if my parents needed it. They just brought.
As I recovered and slowly got better, an old friend of mine baked me a pie. A pie! I didn’t know he could bake. In a place where there was little delight, this delighted me. I had a feeding tube through my nose supplying me with thick chalky nutrients. Food often nauseated me, especially hospital food, so any outside food thrilled me.
Be specific in your help. Instead of ‘let me know what I can do’, just do. Clean, cook, offer to drive, run errands. Bring me a nightgown! I was so sick of hospital gowns a few people brought me nightgowns and made my new unwanted world better. It’s the little things that can sometimes impact you the most.

Be there
My friend Tanya visited me often. Once a week, sometimes more, she drove the hour-long drive to sit with me and when I was able she wheeled me anywhere I wanted to go which was sometimes just to the floor below me. She helped put on my prosthetic legs, pulling and stretching, since I wasn’t strong enough. There wasn’t always a lot of conversation between us. Often I was too tired to speak, so we sat in companionable silence, watching a movie or whatever was on TV. She didn’t come with pat answers, but she did come equipped with homemade cinnamon buns. I loved her for it.

Sacred ground
My friend Loraleigh who was there through it all used the precious words sacred ground when commenting on the previous post. Know that when someone is in deep pain and you, with all your heart, want to be there for them remember you are on sacred ground. You are in someone’s hell, their very own hell, one they wake up to and go to sleep with. Listen to them and love them.

I have so much to say on this topic but I fear your eyes will begin to glaze over. (I’ll save it for the book 🙂 )If there is anything you’d like to add, please do. I love reading what you have to say.

78 thoughts on “what to say

  1. Kerstin

    My eyes already glazed over, too late for that.
    When I did my life coach training one of the things we talked about was what to say when someone dies, someone got dealt a really shitty set of cards or is just struggling. The doctor who taught the course said: “If you don’t have anything to say that shows genuine support then don’t say anything at all.”
    That was a very good piece of advice that I try to live by. Be real or shut up.
    I could feel so many raw emotions in this post, this might be one of my favourite ones by you so far. Thanks.

  2. Christy

    This should be required reading for everyone on this planet. And I know you have yet to publish your story, but honestly Heidi this type of information, told this way, could be a whole book in and of itself!

    I am so glad your friends and family were there for you…once again, so incredibly moved by you!

  3. Jill

    And on the flip side, hearing that someone who has been through a tragedy is comforted by the heartfelt “I’m sorry” is good to know. I’m one of those who never knows what to say aside from that … because I’m a crier and always end up crying with my friends.

  4. Lindsay

    I have so enjoyed both these posts – what not and what TO say.

    While it’s delicate ground, my Aunt (who died three times and had to learn to walk again, among other challenges) is always bothered when people attribute her recovery to God, as though she herself had nothing to do with it. She has said that she feels like it minimizes how tough SHE was. It also bothered her when people would say things like ‘i’m so glad you’re better, I prayed for you’ as though it were their prayers and not her force of will and determination that helped her to walk again. I don’t know how you capture that, but…

    I think picking up the phone AND leaving the message are important. I might not want to talk, I might be in my dark place. But leave the message. Let me listen when it’s not so dark, let me save the message to listen to on a different day. I think sometimes people get intimidated about just picking up the phone.

    Make guilt casserole. When my grandparents died unexpectedly within days of each other, no one brought food. We are a big family and intimidating, but no one brought ANYTHING. We had to go out for dinner to find food and subsisted on Pringles for the better part of 36 hours, all 20 of us. One person finally brought a casserole and we’ve always lovingly referred to it as ‘guilt casserole’ because we made everyone we knew feel so bad about not bringing food. Guilt casserole remains one of my favorite things.

    Please keep writing — this is great and I truly enjoy reading your blog.

    1. heidi

      Yes, this. “I think picking up the phone AND leaving the message are important. I might not want to talk, I might be in my dark place. But leave the message. Let me listen when it’s not so dark, let me save the message to listen to on a different day. I think sometimes people get intimidated about just picking up the phone.” It’s the ‘being there’ that matters.
      I struggled too with God getting all the credit for my hard work. I believe in God, but I belong to God as much as I belong to me. I think your aunt and I would get along very well.:)
      I love, love the guilt casserole!

  5. tanya

    Reading this and thinking back about those times? It was exploring. Exploring how to move through the new reality, remembering who you were and finding out who you still were in the midst of hell, examining what I might want from my friends and then taking it all one day at a time.

    I learned so much about Jack and Nikki, the quality of the people in the burn unit, the random areas of the city we drove thru and the unending strength of you.

    Pre T.A. I knew I liked you. Post T.A. it was love.
    You are a force to be reckoned with and I am beyond lucky having you as a friend.

    1. heidi

      You made me cry. Damn you! I kid. You know I love you. You were and are an amazing friend. Kind and generous. I’m lucky to have you.
      The roses are opening and smelling divine, by the way.:)

  6. Jennifer


    This is just right. It’d be so great if nurses could hand this out at hospitals, wouldn’t it? I just love you. That’s all. Wish I could’ve sat with you back then, happy to be with you now. XO

  7. Delilah

    This post was perfect. Just perfect. I was the friend trying to figure out what to say and what not to say when my best friend was in the hosptial after a serious car accident. Her brother was killed in the crash, he was also my good friend (my first kiss actually) and the driver was another close friend. I felt so helpless and I was terrified to say or do the wrong thing. I was 17 and so out of my element. I learned so much from that experience- about compassion, about being real and about comfort. This post sent me straight back to that time in my life. I spent a lot of time this week reading your story. I hope you know how powerful of a writer you are, you evoked so many emotions in me with your words. You are truly gifted.

    1. heidi

      Thank you, Delilah. I’m so sorry to hear about your friends. It’s so hard being on the other side (your side) wanting to do something but feeling helpless and powerless to do anything. It sounds like you did all the right things. By being real and there for her. Thank you so much for sharing this. It means a lot to me.

  8. Beej

    What everyone else said.

    This and its predecessors should be handed out to everyone in the circle of someone in the midst of a medical crisis. People frequently say “There’s no instruction manual” on how to deal with these situations. I present your blog as evidence to the contrary.

    1. heidi

      Oh my! Thank you, Stephanie. When I began writing the manuscript that ‘right distance’ was so important to me, so to read your comment today just hit home in that writer’s spot of mine. Thank you.

  9. Robbie

    Very helpful. So many people have no idea what to do when there’s a tragedy/accident/illness. At times it feels like saying I’m sorry isn’t enough. I am glad to know it it.

    1. heidi

      Thank you. It really is hard to know what to do and every situation is different, but you can almost never go wrong with a sincere I’m sorry. 🙂

  10. Andi Brown

    Again, this list is so very true and important. Something I wish we could hand out and post in the hospital. I love that your friend could cry, right there with you. And I love that people just brought your parents food. When in grief and stress you can’t even know what to ask for to help.
    I am so in awe of you and what you are doing!

    1. heidi

      Andi, thank you! The food, the crying, the being there helped. It was the little things that grabbed a hold of me the most.
      We have a pretty large extended Mennonite family and, let me tell you, Mennonites can cook! The amount of food my parents received was astounding.

  11. Lance

    Like the post I submitted to yeahwrite, it looks like our minds were alike. This came from a very real place with you.

    I have people in my life that are suppsoed to be close family members that have either never said these things to me or refuse to say them to me now, when I need to hear them the most.

    When you screw up, a speech isn’t necessary. I’m sorry is really all that’s needed.

    I’m a hugger and an emotional person. When I see someone’s countenance is down or their body language is screaming hurt or despair, I try to throw a hug or something similar associated with “it’ll be ok” or “I’m here” or something to assure them. I rarely get this in return.

    Thsi is a wonderful post and it hit me perfectly when I needed it. Thank you.

    1. heidi

      I need to read your post! I haven’t read all of them yet.
      Thank you for this, for your words and your story. It’s awful when you’re giving and there isn’t much coming back, especially when you’re wounded. My heart goes out to you.

    1. heidi

      I can’t take credit for that. Sacred ground comes from my friend Loraleigh who is full of these pearls of wisdom. It does stay with you, doesn’t it? That’s why I had to write it down.
      Thank you so much, Erin.

  12. Runnermom-jen

    I have to go and read the first post that you wrote, but this one is such sound advice for anyone coping with any sort of tragedy.
    And really beautifully written.

  13. Jessica@Team Rasler

    All wonderful, and spoken from someone who really knows makes it all the more likely people will remember what to say. My best friend and I have been compiling these kinds of things for a while in hopes that we will someday write our book titled: “What Not to Say: How to Avoid Being a Well-Meaning Idiot” because so many people mean well but just say the dumbest things. Now I want to see what your What Not to Say post includes! Anyway, we found that, “I’m sorry, this really sucks” worked for nearly every situation. Basically a combination of your first two. Glad that those words helped you, too. I bet your book will be amazing – it’s quite a story you have!

    1. heidi

      Ha! “How to avoid a well-meaning idiot” That’s awesome. You should totally write that book!
      Thank you, Jessica.

  14. Alexis

    Thank you for doing the ‘what to say / what not to say’ posts. It’s something so many people struggle with and you gave an honest answer. Reminds me a little of a quote from the book The Adults (a good one, ps) when the father is dying and he tells everyone it’s rude that they’re being so polite to him. This is a great post.

    1. heidi

      Okay, now I’m going to have to look up that book. I am always on the lookout for a good book.
      Thank you so much, Alexis!

  15. Emily

    This is going to sound weird, but this post made me tingle. The comfort you’re encouraging people to offer is so real, and so sincere, and in some ways these are words we all need to hear. “Stand in someone’s pain with them”; that really struck me. I think it takes so much courage to let ourselves really empathize or really feel.

    Wonderful advice, Heidi!

    1. heidi

      No, not weird at all! I don’t know how many things I’ve read where I have felt that way, all goosebump-ey.
      How true – it does take courage to let our guard down and feel.
      Thank you, Emily.

  16. Kim Pugliano @The G is Silent

    Perfect perfect perfect. I know it’s not the same, but when my neighbor had a baby all the neighbors were all ready to help her out and bring her food and help around the house. I cooked. I cleaned. I let her sleep. It amazed me.

    Thank you for sharing.

    1. heidi

      Exactly! Everyone needs help. That’s awesome of you. Your neighbor is lucky to have you! I loved having food dropped off at my house when I had my babies. It made my world go ’round.

  17. Lenore

    Heidi, I am glad you followed this up with a ‘what to say’. As someone already mentioned, this should be required reading. This was excellent. Thank you.

  18. Susan

    “just do.” that may be the best advice i’ve heard in a long time. thank you for that!

    p.s. write that book. i want it!

    1. heidi

      Oh, it’s written. With more revision coming soon I’m sure. These posts are something I’m trying out and will possibly add to the end of the manuscript.
      Thank you!

  19. Christie

    Great post. Something that we all need to be reminded of from time to time. Thank you for putting the suggestions out there in a practical and inspiring way.

  20. Kristin

    Perfection. This is so useful!

    I always defer to food. Savory or sweet pies, soups, sandwiches. And sometimes (when it’s appropriate) wine. The good stuff. 🙂

    1. heidi

      All thanks to Loraleigh…when she said that I teared up because I thought, yes. Exactly. Sacred ground. Of course! (She’s good like that.)

  21. Jay- The Dude of the House

    Another great list, Heidi. Last week’s really hit home, as I spent several weeks hanging out in the hospital as my mother was passing away. A lot of people made really stupid comments. The smart ones said things you listed above. Some who didn’t know what to say just opted to say nothing and we sat quietly together. They were there for me, and for her. And sometimes that was enough.

    1. heidi

      Sometimes we can’t find words and I never minded when someone said to me, I don’t know what to say and simply stayed with me. It’s the heart behind it and the support we’re after. I’m so glad you had that.
      I know we’re going on and on about ‘I’m sorry’ here, but I truly am sorry for the loss of your mother. I can’t even imagine what this week has been like for you. My heart goes out to you, Jay.

  22. Toriz

    Great post, though I have to say one thing… Sorry can be over-used… People said it to me so many times I got sick of it. People still say it sometimes, and I’ve heard it so many times now that I’m sick of it and have to bite my lip to stop myself saying something like, “what good is sorry? Sorry doesn’t fix things, does it?” It’s not that I’m ungreatful for the “sorry”… And I know they mean well (hence biting my lip to stop myself giving the retort). But a statement like, “I’m sorry” can be over-used.

    1. heidi

      Hello, my friend. Yes, I agree. I think we need to be wise and careful with our words. Sometimes it’s best to be quiet and simply be there, be a good friend. I get that. Thank you for your thoughtful and important advice.

  23. Jackie

    I do believe these were the wisest words I’ve read this week. Your truths ring true for so many scenarios, and I do agree, these should be copied and passed out.

  24. Kim@MamaMzungu

    Heidi, this is simply perfect. I don’t have too much more to add to what everyone has already said – this should definitely be required reading for anyone hoping to support someone going through a tragedy. I know so much of this is dependent on the person, but giving help (baking food, driving etc…) without being asked is always a good idea as is simply being there reliably. So many of us are simply out of our depth and relatable experience when tragedy strikes and it’s simply GOLD to have these guidelines. I’m going to remember your words for a long time!

    1. heidi

      Absolutely. So often we are out of our depth. There are circumstances I come across that are way beyond me and I can’t speak to it, but I know I can be there….reliably…like you said. 🙂

  25. Tanya Doyle

    Hi! I’m new to your site, and I love this post. Our close neighbors lost their young son last year to a very aggressive cancer, and this kind of advice is something I could use, even now, a year after his passing. Thank you.

    1. heidi

      Hi Tanya! I’m glad it’s helpful. I’m just sorry for why it’s helpful. I’m sure your neighbors are comforted by your friendship and support.
      It’s so nice to meet you. 🙂

  26. IntenseGuy

    This is an excellent list… it should be on one of those “everyone needs to learn this” list.

  27. IntenseGuy

    P.s., Thank you for the time you took to discuss the “why we are here” and …about how flat things seemed. I try not to complain, no one really likes a “Debbie downer” but I did that day… I felt secure enough to do so – and your words were of great comfort to me.

    1. heidi

      Michelle, I am just so sorry. How is she, how are you? I can’t begin to imagine how hard this must be for you. My heart goes out to you and your family.

  28. CindiS

    Hi. I jumped over from Inch of Gray….. I love this list. I may even just send it on to a few folks that may need a clue. I would add that the last item on the list might be… “Repeat.”
    The tradgedy/grief/pain/fear does not end when the cards stop coming. It is a constant, evolving, ebbing, flowing, but constant for years and years in my experience.

    1. heidi

      Cindi, yes, repeat. How true. That first year is so hard, but there are people and distractions everywhere. There is also the survival of it all. It’s the second and then the third year where it sinks in and you realize it will forever be your reality…that’s how it felt to me, anyway.
      Thank you for jumping over and thank you for your words.

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  30. Shyra Smith

    Great post. I loved reading all your posts. And the way you explained, it’s really important to say the right thing at the right moment. I firmly believe that, especially saying “I’m sorry”. A simple sorry can resolve lots of problems so many times.

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