“It didn’t take,” she whispered to me.
She’d been trying for well over a year to get pregnant. I’d known since the earliest days that she was trying to start a family. “Why isn’t this working?” she asked. For her, it felt like defeat. She was bewildered and sad.
“Why is getting pregnant so much harder than I expected?”
This is such a tough place to be—to want something so much and yet feel so little control over the outcome. It’s even harder when you feel like you’re going through something like this alone, and you don’t know who you can talk to about it. As a result, you end up feeling lonely and disconnected at precisely the moment when you need community the most.
I believe that one of the primary reasons it’s hard to tell people about tough stuff is because of how they react.
“Oh, it’ll all work out in the end,” someone might say about your infertility, dismissively waving their hand, pretending it’ll just magically happen. In doing this, they skip past the pain and avoid the hard emotions.
“You know, my friend tried these exotic plants and that worked for them,” someone else might say, thinking that they are being ‘helpful’ by offering you random solutions. Another phrase that’s both irresponsible and hurtful? When people say, “Well, you can always adopt,” as though it’s an easy fix in moving forward.
But when people try to ‘fix’ the problem with ‘helpful’ solutions, when they dismiss your feelings, or when they seem uncomfortable spending time with you in the sticky stuff, this creates rifts instead of connection. This leads us to keep things close to our heart and miss out on the deeper connections we want and need. Whatever news you’re reeling from—whether it’s infertility news, loss, or any realm of life’s toughest challenges, what most people want is to be met with tenderness and compassion, not solutions or erasure.
So how do we get better at meeting each other in the tough stuff with compassion and kindness?
In this essay, I’ll walk through exactly what not to do when someone gets hard news. Then, we’ll look at the specific things you can do when someone is going through a hard time — that’s all highlighted in the next section. If you’re the one going through something hard, send this essay to a friend and say, “I’m going through something tough. I’d love it if you could read this and use this with me.”
Then, if you want to go deeper, I’ve written out more than a dozen of my favorite phrases and exact scripts that lead to better conversations and connections. You can use these phrases to support your friends, you can tell people to use them with you, and you’ll begin to see why they make all the difference.
At Startup Parent, part of our ethos is telling honest stories about motherhood, fatherhood, and the journey to becoming a parent. This means covering the full spectrum: how hard it can be to get pregnant, why infertility is still not easy to talk about, how common pregnancy loss can be, the complex joy and sadness of becoming a parent, and so much more. In order for us to be more deeply connected, we need to be willing to spend some time in the dark.
What to Do When People Get Bad News
Imagine someone comes to you with a tender story. They’ve lost a pregnancy, they’re disappointed in an outcome, they didn’t get what they wanted—honestly, it doesn’t matter so much what the exact subject matter is. What matters most is how they feel about it, and that they’re sharing it with you.
First, we need to break some bad habits.
HERE’S WHAT NOT TO DO:
Don’t dismiss or rush past it.
Don’t try to fix it or solve it (unless they specifically asked you to help).
Don’t give unsolicited advice.
Please, please don’t say that everything happens for a reason.
Don’t tell a story about what someone else did and how it worked for them.
When people come to you in a place of vulnerability, sharing something tender and difficult for them, they are trusting you with their heart. Sharing something hard is like they are giving you an offering of bravery.
How you respond matters.
HERE’S WHAT TO DO:
The best thing you can do is to be there with them in whatever their truth is. For them, it may have been devastating. It may be a hard feeling. It may be their first time going through something like this. This is what compassion and empathy are about—the ability to be present with someone and to be there for them.
If you try to rush past it, if you quickly try to fix it or solve it, if you tell them what you think they should do about it, then you’re communicating to them that these awful feelings—which are a part of them in this moment—are things to be avoided, fixed, or patched up as fast as possible. The subtle consequence of jumping in to ‘fix’ something for someone else is that we can accidentally communicate that these feelings are “bad” and “scary” and shouldn’t be allowed space to breathe.
Feelings aren’t bad. They’re feelings. When we allow space for feelings, and we are witnessed and cared for by others, it can make all the difference.
Here’s what you can do instead:
Acknowledge what they’ve shared.
Validate their experience.
Say thank you for their bravery—it took courage for them to tell you this.
Pause. Allow space for what’s happening.
Ask them how they are feeling about it.
Let them tell you more about it, if they want to share.
There’s so much more to say about feelings and validation—for the purpose of this essay, validating someone’s feeling is not about denying your own experience, it’s about allowing them to have their truth (even if you don’t agree with it, even if you believe the facts are different, or if you personally would do something different).
“That sounds like it was so tough for you,” you can say. “I hear you saying that this was absolutely terrifying, and your experience was that this was entirely overwhelming and disorienting.”
Speaking of all the things we can say, if you’d like to see my exact scripts for times like these, read on—exactly what to say is what we’ll cover next.
What to Say When People Get Bad News
Over the years, I’ve kept a list of various phrases that work for situations like this. Through trial and error, I’ve learned that knowing what to say is not always intuitive or clear-cut. Some things seem like they’d be great, but actually are terrible things to say, and other phrases that are sneakily brilliant at supporting people.
Many of the phrases I’ll show you below are the exact phrases I use on my podcast and in my coaching work to dig deeper into stories and ideas with people. In applying these to your own life, pick out a couple that feel the most like you. Then, write them down on an note you can put in your wallet, on your desk, or use as an image as the screen saver on your phone.
1. VALIDATE WHAT THEY ARE GOING THROUGH.
Treat the heart tenderly, and you’ll create space for depth. When someone shares something with me, acknowledge and validate the depth of the story. Before inserting a question or a thought, or pulling the attention back to your side of the conversation, start by acknowledge all that’s going on for them.
Here are phrases you can use:
I’m so sorry you’re dealing with this.
That must be really hard.
This sounds like so much.
Notice, too, that these are sentences and phrases that end with a period. Not a question mark. Think about the sound that a statement makes—instead of adding the vocal uptick and inflection of a question mark, you can create a landed, grounded statement with a more solid sound to it. This is a language equivalent to a drum beat. These pauses and acknowledgements are the steady notes of a conversational medley.
2. EXPRESS GRATITUDE THAT THEY SHARED.
When someone opens their story to you, that means they believe that you are someone they can trust and share with. This is a big deal.
Thank them for the privilege and the honor of being allowed to hear the story. You must matter to them.
What you can say:
Thanks for telling me.
I’m so grateful you shared this with me.
It means a lot that you told me this.
Allow space for the story to unfold. The body works on a different clock than the world, and the full-body felt sense follows different rhythms than language alone. Make space. Allow for the pauses. Ask them if there’s more to the story.
Here are some phrases you can use to indicate you’re there to listen:
Tell me more about… (Pick something for them to say more about).
That sounds like it was… (You can attempt to guess at an emotion or feeling).
Do you want to talk more about this? I’m happy to listen. (I promise I won’t tell you the story of Aunt Rosie who tried miracle herbs and ended up having twins.)
Mmm... (Nod your head and cue them to keep going.)
“Tell me more about what this has been like,” I told the woman dealing who wasn’t able to get pregnant for years. “That must be so gutting, month over month and year over year, to get this news.”
“It is,” she said. “No one seems to know how painful it is to live through this—the constant waiting, the guessing, the searching. It totally takes over my whole life, it’s like all I can think about. It’s exhausting.”
4. DON’T TRY TO FIX IT OR SOLVE IT.
In an industrialized, commercialized, and productivity-based culture, we can be hyper-indexed on efficiency and solutions. The problem with searching for solutions in the realm of emotions, however, is that emotions aren’t a mathematical puzzle to be solved. They’re here to be felt, a story that’s unfolding in the sensory world.
Just as you wouldn’t touch the agar plate in a science experiment with your fingertips, trying to “solve away” an emotion is just going to muddy the process of emotional unfolding. Let the feelings be what they are and don’t try to fix anything.
Let the feelings be what they are and don’t try to fix anything.
“That sounds like so much invisible work,” I said when I heard about the months-long exhaustion around trying to get pregnant. “That’s another full-time job on top of all of the work that you’re doing as it is. It must feel so overwhelming and exhausting.”
If you feel the impulse to share helpful information, pause first. Ask yourself why you’re trying to make something “all better” for someone else. Sometimes when we’re trying to solve or fix something for someone else, we’re actually trying to avoid our own emotional discomfort with the situation. Witnessing someone else go through something hard can bring up any number of emotions for us—and by “fixing” we might actually be avoiding our own complex emotions—feelings like sadness, grief, loss of control, helplessness, and more.
If you’re trying to hurry up and get to a happy ending, “Oh, there’s a bigger plan,” or “I’m sure it will all work out in the end,” or you’re trying to fix something for a friend, check-in with yourself or even check in with your friend. Are you actually helping and being supportive, or are you avoiding the feelings?
Plus, it’s likely they’ve probably been reading dozens of books and articles, talking to a million doctors, exploring functional medicine or western medicine, and so much more. Rather than ply them with more information and “tips and tricks,” be the friend that shows up for them and listens.
Here are a bunch of things you can say that aren’t about fixing the problem:
What is it like for you going through this?
Ugh, that must make you want to yell and scream.
Do you have people around you who get it?
I’m sure so much has changed for you—how are you hanging in there in this season of life?
What are some of the hard parts that no one else talks about? Is there anything you wish that other people understood better about this?
I want you to know that I can be here for you to just listen, whenever you need.
Listening deeply and being with someone else is about communicating that you’re willing to spend time with them in the tough stuff. That you’re able to be with them in the truth, even if the truth is messy or uncomfortable. It’s not always with words that we say this—sometimes we say this by showing up, by listening, and by not running away if the experience is a tough one.
5. CHECK TO SEE IF THEY HAVE SUPPORT.
“This must be so isolating if no one else knows you’re going through it,” I reflected back about trying to get pregnant for years. “Do you have enough people to support you right now? Are you able to talk to other people who understand? — Or do you feel completely alone in this?”
Before offering help, sometimes it’s better to check in and see if they’re drowning in offers of help, or if they seem to be totally isolated and alone. I’ve found that helping someone talk through the kind of support system they need can be a very powerful exercise—they can identify who to talk to, the people they can rely on, and the gaps they still need to fill.
Here are a few ways to check-in about support in a way that can actually be helpful:
Do you feel supported by your doctors, friends, and family?
Are there groups that you’re finding that are a good support for this?
What has been the most helpful for you, and where do you feel the most overwhelmed or alone?
Do you want more resources and ideas around this, or are you drowning in information?
Is it helpful if I connect you with people I know that have been through this before?
Is there anything that people are doing or saying that’s been irritating or tough for you? (That way I won’t do that to you!)
6. REMEMBER THAT NO ONE IS PERFECT.
I went through a time when it was really hard for me to show up for a friend. She was going through a divorce, and I started to feel strangely overwhelmed and emotional. “What is going on with me?” I wondered. I realized that it was bringing up a lot of feelings from when my parents got divorced, which made it hard for me to show up clearly. Our text cadence slowed and I went radio silent a few times.
“Get it together, Peck—this is not about you!” I tried to snap out of it and be a better friend. But people aren’t perfect. We are human beings, involved and interconnected, and the feelings and reactions that were stirred up in me were also valid.
When in doubt, remember Brené Brown’s phrase—being clear is kind.
If the story someone is sharing makes you feel overwhelmed, stressed, taxed—or for any reason you’re unable to respond, it’s kinder to let people know than to leave a gaping hole of silence in between you. Sometimes the best thing to do is point to the awkward thing and bring it into the room with you.
Here’s the gist of what I texted to my friend being gutted by a divorce:
I have no idea why I’m having such a big reaction to this, but it’s bringing up a lot of personal stuff for me about my parent’s divorce, and I’m starting to realize how hard this is for me to talk about. I wanted to tell you just so you know that I’m not deliberately avoiding you or ghosting you, I’m just having a ton of emotions and I don’t want to dump them all over you and I don’t even understand it fully myself. You can probably guess this is coming up in my therapy tons!! Just because I’m quieter than normal doesn’t mean I’m not thinking about you! And I’m sorry I’m not showing up the way I want to right now!
She ended up telling me how meaningful it was that I told this to her, and that she felt moved by the fact that I was, as they say, ‘doing the work.’ Because neither of us could find words, we texted back and forth in memes for a while.
There’s no such thing as a perfect friend or a perfect reaction. We’re all weird, we all have different histories, and we each have our own struggles. If you’re struggling to be there for someone, tell them. Being clear is a kindness.
Here are a few ways you can be clear when it’s hard:
I’m struggling with what to say and I keep leaving big silences in our communications. I hope you know I love you even when I don’t know what to say.
I wish I were better at showing up for you. I’m learning how messy this can be. Please know that I’m stumbling through this and I want to be there for you.
People aren’t perfect. Life isn’t clean and tidy. Many people go through stress at the same time. There’s room for everyone, and sometimes it’s hard to show up for people. Give people a heads up, gently.
Validate what they are going through.
Express gratitude that they shared (with YOU)!
Don’t try to fix it or solve it.
Check to see if they have support.
Remember that no one is perfect.
Be with them in the tough stuff.
Most people don’t want to be alone. The best thing we can do for each other is be there with each other—to hold space, to care for them, to listen, and to be there with what they are going through.
This can be so hard to do. Often, we don’t know what to do because we’ve never been through it before, and we haven’t seen it modeled well for us yet. For many of us, our families and culture modeled avoidance, fear, abandonment, or other reactions in the face of hard stuff, and so we don’t really have a clear map for where to go.
So, my last script is about the moments when you’re stuck and you don’t know where to go. In this case, naming that very feeling—acknowledging what’s happening itself—can be the way through.
There is freedom in telling the truth, even if that means pointing to the mess as it exists → “I don’t know what to say THIS EFFING SUCKS OMG”
Here are some examples in action:
I have no idea what to say. Everything I try to write is coming out wrong. I’m here. You matter to me. This must be so hard.
There is no good thing to say right now. I’m sure I’m going to say the wrong thing and shove ten feet into my mouth. This sucks. This fucking sucks. I’m so sorry. I’M SO SORRY.
Words are failing me right now, but I want you to know how much I care.
Please know that I’m thinking about you all the time and I know that I’m showing up in the clunkiest way. I’m going to keep trying. I love you.
All of these scripts follow the same recipe.
The recipe behind the awkward, first-time, what-am-I-doing style of compassion is putting three different phrases together:
I don’t know what to say +
What the actual f*ck +
I care about you.
This is compassion and empathy: the ability to be there with someone in the tough stuff. To name it. To point to it. Not to hide from it, avoid it, ghost it, fix it, shame it, or solve it. Most people want to be met with tenderness and compassion, not solutions or erasure. If anything, I hope this collection makes you and the ones you love feel more seen, and less alone.
— Sarah Peck
CEO & Founder
These tips all revolve around loss……of any kind. Dreams deferred , or lost forever, are part of life .
To acknowledge a person’s loss in this sensitive manner is definition of a true friend.
I love this so much - thank you! Sometimes we’re so quick (myself included) to try to replace “bad” emotions with “good” ones, but all emotions are equal. They exist because they need to be felt, expressed and acknowledged. Your scripts facilitate all of those things beautifully.