What to Say When You Have No Idea What to Say
Because "There, there, it'll be okay," only works on 5-year-olds.
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.
When you go to hear your brother's band play a terrible, eardrum-assaulting show:
"You guys had great energy!" Thumbs up. Big smile. Next time remember the earplugs.
When your partner says he wants to quit his job:
"Do you want to go for a walk?" Sometimes it's easier to talk things through when you're not sitting there staring at each other, and sometimes just the sheer, simple animal action of moving forward helps your mind-gears to chug forward, too. Is your husband feeling stuck in his job, stalled in his career, unable to work through a major life-puzzle? This is not a conversation to have while stuck in a diner booth or kitchen chair. What you need is a long, winding walk through the world.
When you see a long-lost high school buddy and she's lost a ton of weight:
"It's so great to see you. How have you been?"—with a smile. For it is just way too easy to go wrong here. "Whoa, you look so great!" sounds like a compliment, looks like a compliment, smells like a compliment, but...it implies the opposite, You used to not look great. If someone has been working hard to drop pounds, she will appreciate the opportunity to discuss the change. If someone is dealing with an unfortunate medical condition, this gives her a chance to share, if she is so inclined. Because after all, you don't know what's really going on. A friend of mine suffered a terrible breakup, became depressed, couldn't eat and lost weight, only to have people say,"Wow, you look so great! What did you do?"
When someone tells you she's given up:
"I know you're feeling hopeless, and to ask you to feel hopeful is too much." This is a two-parter, are you ready? Because then you must say, "Let me carry your hope for you." And then, friend, you must actually do it.
Amy Shearn is the author of The Mermaid of Brooklyn: A Novel
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