Dr. Andrea Hollingsworth
Hollingsworth Consulting

The accident was two weeks ago today. My friend Micheala’s sixteen-year-old son, Samson, was on his way to school when he was involved in a horrific car wreck.

Despite heroic efforts of Samson’s medical team at Gillette Children’s Hospital in St. Paul, the brain swelling couldn’t be stopped. On December 2, Micheala’s first-born child—“my first love,” in her words—passed away in her arms.

In the wake of her great loss, I’ve read and heard a lot of things expressed to Micheala and other surviving family members. It’s given me the opportunity to think deeply about how we communicate care when people are in pain.

Nonverbal expressions and actions are often the most healing form of care. I’m talking: shared hugs, shared tears, making meals, donating dollars. And of course, simply being there, witnessing the anguish, abiding the silence. The importance of simple, attentive presence cannot be overestimated.

But what if we want to say something, as we often do? What words can be used when people are suffering greatly? And even more importantly—what ought we best avoid saying?

It’s a good time of year to be thinking about this. The holiday season tends to stir up wounds, losses, conflicts, and ruptures. In a season of lights and cheer, many people feel a dark heaviness in their hearts.

And I think we’ve all witnessed well-meaning empathizers saying unhelpful or hurtful things to folks navigating grievous and/or stressful times. I’m sure Micheala has many examples she could share.

Ethics 101 means, above all, “Do No Harm.” As we think about compassionate expression in the face of another’s pain, stress, grief, or mistake, let’s take a moment to consider some things we might try to avoid saying, so as to avoid doing harm.

What Not to Say to Someone in Pain

  • “This Will Make you Stronger.” Sometimes pain makes people stronger, wiser, and more resilient. And sometimes it doesn’t. When they’re in the thick of their pain, telling someone they will come out better on the other side can feel like a burdensome pressure that just cannot be borne. If character growth comes, if beauty emerges from the ashes, be there to celebrate it when or after it happens. Not before. Not while the darkness is still deep.
  • “It’s All a Part of the Plan.” The very next question here is, “Whose plan?” If something terribly tragic has just happened, such as the accidental death of a child, it isn’t compassionate to suggest that a higher power ordained this thing to take place. If the person is crying out, “Why? Why? Why?” it is enough to feel with them the awfulness and absurdity of the situation. Tell them you simply don’t know, but you’re here with them, in the hard questioning.
  • “I Can’t Imagine.” It’s not about what you can or cannot imagine. It’s about what happened, and what the person must face. If it’s something horribly tragic (like Micheala’s loss), rest assured the sufferer can’t really imagine it either. And yet, it is. If you want to express your dismay at the gravity of the situation, try words that align with the sufferer and communicate shared shock. “This pain feels unimaginable. I’m not going to let you abide it alone. I’m here.”
  • “I Saw This Coming.” Let’s say someone tells you they’re wrestling with the repercussions of a bad decision they made. Even if you did predict they’d end up suffering their present consequences, resist the urge to say so. That only casts blame and shame. Instead, let them know that making bad decisions (and learning from them) is part of what it means to be human.
  • “I Know How it Will Turn Out.” If you want to comfort someone who’s suffering within an uncertain situation, say things like, “I’m pulling for you! I’m hoping/praying with everything in me! We so want and need this! I’m in your corner, however this turns out!” But resist the urge to dole out false hope, even if you’re feeling optimistic or like you’ve read the crystal ball. Why? Because in the event that things don’t go as you’d pronounced, your remembered words will only compound the person’s confusion and deepen their disappointment.
  • “If You Only Believe/Work/Pray/Try Hard Enough, Things Will Change.” Such a statement can only be heard as an accusation of present inadequacy. If the suffering person needs to change somehow, trust that that will become eminently clear to them through their own intuition and circumstances—and without you needing to say a thing.
  • “Time Will Heal the Hurt.” When someone is walking through something very heavy, time often seems to slow. Every passing second, minute, and hour just hurts. When time feels more like a torturer than a healer, telling someone time will heal them can feel dismissive and nonsensical instead of hopeful. Instead, try something like: “Every hour you get through is a victory. Keep holding on, and letting yourself beheld, hour by hour.”

During this season when so many are navigating difficult emotions, let us all pause and seek wisdom before we speak. Let us remember that our presence and action is often much more important than our verbiage. Let us simply be there, and above all, do no harm.

About Andrea

Dr. Andrea Hollingsworth is Founder and CEO of Hollingsworth Consulting, author of the bestselling book The Compassion Advantage (2024), and one of today’s leading global experts on compassionate leadership. Since 2008, she has been studying, speaking, and writing about the science and spirituality of human emotions and relationships. Her articles have been published more than a dozen times in peer-reviewed journals, and she has taught at prestigious institutions like Princeton, Boston University, and Loyola University Chicago. In addition, Dr. Andrea has delivered talks to audiences at some of the top-ranked universities in the world—including Cambridge University in England and Heidelberg University in Germany.

Dr. Andrea spends most of her time inspiring leaders and teams to use The Compassion Advantage to build supercharged organizations through cultures of care— especially in times of challenge and change. Andrea lives with her family in Minnesota where she cheers hard at her son’s soccer games and relishes every opportunity to visit the north shore of Lake Superior.