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What Not to Say to Struggling Loved Ones during the Holidays


What Not to Say to Struggling Loved Ones during the Holidays

Bethany O
Bethany O

One perk of being from a large family and having no control over my tear ducts is that I am the lucky recipient of a lot of advice.

I also have a lot of data for studying how people respond to my pain.

On one remarkable occasion of untimely tear ducts, my eyelids started leaking just when 30ish family members gathered around two 50th birthday cakes to sing a little diddy to two special birthday girls.

This day was noteworthy because it broke a personal record.  In the 30-minutes following the final serenade of “Happy Birthday to you,” concerned loved ones offered me all of the following:

  • sympathy,
  • God,
  • hugs of varying severities,
  • inspiring quotations,
  • music,
  • a massage,
  • advice of varying desperations,
  • pharmaceuticals,
  • compliments,
  • space,
  • CAKE
  • laughter,
  • sundry other such offerings.

When people see you struggling, they tend to tell you you need the thing that THEY need when they are struggling.

Which is super helpful, in the highly unlikely event that it’s true.

[Let me be clear that I am NOT requesting that you people stop with the above generous offerings!  Because--COME ON!!!  OFFERINGS!]

Here come some observations that I think could serve the world:

  • By my rough estimates, one million percent of the time, advice-givers have BEAUTIFUL and KIND and LOVING intentions.
  • For sure we’d be hard-pressed to think of a richer blessing in life than a suffocatingly generous family!  [POUNDSIGNTHANKFUL]
  • SOMETIMES well-meaning advice-givers are unintentionally inflammatory.

(Not in MY family, of course!  MY family only says RIGHT THINGS!  I have mainly heard this from other individuals, is all!  Mere conjecture is what this is!)

But now I’m thinking.

Today is Thanksgiving, which as we all know is the day families gather around dead birds to feast and inadvertently hurt each others’ feelings.

I’m thinking of Bridget Jones, who dreaded the holidays because people would always pity-ask her if she had found a boyfriend yet.

And I’m thinking of some friends who are going through some really hard times right now:  divorce, miscarriage, sickness, mourning, job-loss.  I’m concerned they might avoid family on Thanksgiving—the very thing their hearts need for healing—because they dread the pity-parties and the suffocation by advice-givers.

Which is why I want to offer some advice to all the unsolicited advice-givers of the world.

[And for dessert:  IRONY!]

Here are some examples of well-intentioned comments that may or may not be inflammatory:

“I see you struggling and sometimes I feel sad too.”

[NICE!!  100 points for vulnerability.  Thanks for being human, you.]

"...sometimes I feel sad too and I understand what you're going through."

[WRONG.  No you don't know her pain.]

“I have felt sad too and I fixed it so you just need to do what I did to feel better.” 

[Minus two hundred points for creating a Victim/Hero superiority dynamic.  Also:  Yellow card on the invalidation.]

“I see you are sad and you just need to focus on the positive.” 

[Minus ten million points for invalidating like it’s your job.]

“I see you are sad and I AM SO CONCERNED.”

[Minus all the points.  Who is this about?  I’m exhausted just reading your sentence.]

Again:  I see your intentions and I know they are so, so good!  It's the delivery we're tweaking!

The above examples landed on this page all willy-nilly-like, but the reason I came on here today was to tell you about my uncle Jim.

That day at the double-50th birthday fest, I snuck away to another room for a breather, what with all the good advice I was getting.

My uncle came in.

“Hey,” he said, open-heartedly.  (You know an open heart when you see one, friends!)

‘I never know what to say,” he said.  “Your aunts are so much better with advice than I am.  But I want you to know that I care.  Would you mind if I just sit quietly with you?”


Listen.  I’m sure you have a lot of helpful suggestions for your loved one.  But your advice is bandaids on arterial spray if you skip the part about loving them AS THEY ARE.

When we see a person’s pain and instinctively try to change it, we inadvertently create the illusion of conditional love.

We are saying, “I love you, and I need you to change so that I will feel more comfortable.”

Our good intention shifts from being about THEM to being about US.

But as Oriah Mountain Dreamer says, "I want to know if you can sit with pain—mine or your own—without moving to hide it or fade it or fix it.

I can think of no more admirable show of character than this.

I can think of no better gift you could give your loved one this holiday than this message:

“I see you.  I can sit with your pain without moving to change you.  Because I love you just the way you are.” 

Which is why today I will sit with the well-meaning advice givers, and I will not try to change their approach.

Because I love them just the way they are.

Especially when they are offering massages.