When your best friend interviews for her dream job—and doesn't get it:
"You are more than this situation. You are more than this job. You are more than your work life." Don't waste her time with any dreck about how this job wouldn't have actually been her dream job. That's not nearly the point. You know it. She knows it. And that cannot be helped. But what you can help her with is regaining her sense of perspective.
When your sister's husband moves out:
You knew your literature major would come in handy eventually; and here it is, finally, the time to quote Rilke. "Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final." We all have moments of pain that seem inescapable. And sometimes that pain is so impressively awful, so soul-crushingly terrible, that there is nothing to do but to feel it. And to remember (and most of us will need the poet's help with this one) that there is some small salvation in the feeling of it, in living in enough crazy Technicolor-bright emotion, that there are high highs and low lows, that life might not always be pleasant but your emotions today aren't going to be the same ones you're having a year from now.
When your favorite coworker has the Worst Day Ever:
"Three words, honey: Mar-ga-rita." A Worst-Day-Ever veteran doesn't want your thoughtful analysis of her boss's side of the story, or even a to-do list for How To Make Tomorrow Better. And whatever you do, don't suggest a juice fast, or Bikram yoga, or even that great book about being happier everyday. Not now. Not tonight. Let her vent. Listen. Sympathize. And buy the next round.
When the start-up your cousin works for is sold for millions of dollars:
"How are you feeling about that?" Sometimes something exciting can also be scary. Your cousin's bosses may have just made a lot of money, but that doesn't necessarily mean she's rolling in it. It means that her company is in upheaval, that her livelihood is uncertain, that her near future will be defined by change.
When someone you care about loses someone she cared about:
"I wish I could fix this. I can't. It's terrible." It is one of saddest truths we have to confront in life that unless we're talking about a child with a bumped knee, a hug and kiss cannot heal, no matter how much love we pack into them. But you don't have to pretend. You don't have to act like you have the existential hug and kiss to make this situation better. She knows you don't. What you can give is you, the comfort of your presence. The temporary balm of not-aloneness.
Next: Your brother's band is awful? Your partner is ready to quit? Here's what to say...