How to be Nice When Someone is Sad


photo credit: Kalexanderson via photopin cc
photo credit: Kalexanderson via photopin cc

Generosity Season is about to start.

I know this. Wal-mart has the clearance Halloween candy exactly three limps from the fall décor. It’s two aisles from the first Duck Dynasty Christmas ornaments. By November, we feel a little of whatever makes Oprah give away free cars and chicken.

We fill grocery sacks with Thanksgiving staples for less fortunate families.

We snag an ornament from a giving tree and buy sneakers and Barbie dolls for anonymous kids. We’ll stuff a box for Operation Christmas Child.

None of this is wrong.

What about now? The time between our levy of parental tax on our kids’ Halloween haul, and giving a hell who plays football this Thanksgiving? Before we thaw turkey and plot Black Friday, let’s try something simple: We show up. When a friend needs a friend.

“Let us know if there’s anything I can do”

photo credit: Robbie Howell via photopin cc
photo credit: Robbie Howell via photopin cc

We mean well, don’t we? When a friend has a death in the family.

A sickness.

A car wreck or a pet who dies.

As a friend, you just want to do something.

“Let us know if there’s anything we can do.” That’s what friends are for, right?

Do you know Galit Breen?

She writes the blog These Little Waves. She wrote a post recently titled “14,000 ways to be nice to someone when they’re sad.” (That title wins all kinds of SEO points. And who wouldn’t want to know 14,000 ways?)

It didn’t have 14,000 ways, it turns out, but it didn’t need to.

Galit wrote about a friend who, when the Breens received sad news about a pet, who brought over a care package. Another brought chocolate and wine. Others shared text messages and stories of their own similar tough times.

They told of and joyful memories that came along during tough times.

It’s that simple, isn’t it?

photo credit: Tjflex2 via photopin cc
photo credit: Tjflex2 via photopin cc

Show up.

You know a friend is hurting.

You also know your gifts.

Meet them in the middle.

It’s beautiful.

When our cat Leo died, the girls’ cousin, no stranger to pet goodbyes, showed up. She lay in bed with her cousins and told stories and cried and hugged.

And before long, the girls popped up and made rock pets, as Grace said, “to make us think of happier things.”

Don’t worry about anything else

My uncle and our former neighbor called me the week after my dad died. They shared stories about my dad that I didn’t know. My boss at the newspaper I worked for sent me a handwritten note to express condolences.

“Take care of your family and don’t worry about anything else,” he wrote.

I had a toddler at home and a wife weathering complications with her second pregnancy at the time.

When I returned to work, I found that my co-workers had covered the time off I needed when my dad was sick. The vacation time I expected to be drained? It was all there.

photo credit: Kalexanderson via photopin cc
photo credit: Kalexanderson via photopin cc

In tough times, in sad times, in times that felt impossible, there was always some category of love that came through. Right then, in those moments, you want to know you’re surrounded by that kind of love.

You also must exude it.

Sure as times are tough, you’ll survive it. And a friend will send you a text with her sad news.

What can you do? Can you take friends’ kids for a playdate so they can steal some downtime together? Bring your go-to slow-cooker dinner? You know your gifts.

You know your friend.

What have friends done for you?

What can you do for a friend?

kindness quote

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78 thoughts on “How to be Nice When Someone is Sad”

  1. Love this! So important all year, all the time. Its easy to get caught up in our own stuff and forget to show up for others, even when they’ve shown up for us. Its also easy (er) during the holidays to be thankful and sweet to others, at least for the 30 days of thanks Facebook challenge 😉), but it matters all the time. We have to show up every day for each other and ourselves. So much love has been poured out on me and it’s the least I can do to pour some back any chance I can. Thanks for reminding us all What matters.

    1. Thanks Rachael. Sad news doesn’t wait for a season, does it? it’s been 14 years, but I still remember those who attended my dad’s visitation and funeral.

      It ought to be a practice, the kindness. “We have to show up every day for each other and ourselves.” Yes, that. Well said.

      We’ve all had friends (or acquaintances or even strangers!) prop us up in ways we didn’t know we needed. We must keep that spirit in motion.

  2. I think part of the trouble is, sadly, our inability to get over the feeling of “I don’t know what to do” when our friend needs us. Sometimes you don’t even need to do anything. Sometimes you just need to sit with them and hold their hand. I’ve been the recipient of “a friend loves at all times” many times in my life. Even from “strangers.” Like the time I was in hospital with pneumonia when my kids were 11, 13 and 15. I was divorced and raising them on my own – I had no one. Two teachers from their school fought over which one would stay with my kids until I was out of hospital. You summed it up beautifully, Eli, with: “Right then, in those moments, you want to know you’re surrounded by that kind of love.”

    1. Lyn, so glad you mentioned this part of the equation. I always think to myself, “in that situation, what would give me some comfort?”

      Pets have it right. How many times do they simply sit at our feet or by our side when they sense our sadness?

      Thanks for sharing your story. I suspect someone once showed them this kind of kindness, and it stuck in their heart. From there, it allowed them to see what they could do to help.

    2. Lyn, That made me teary. How special are those teachers! I have been touched by that myself and also the love of a stranger…the people who volunteer at the hospital and when you get bad news, they are so beautiful!

  3. i completely follow this doctrine, and on the other side, friends have come through for me, when i needed it and least expected it, over the years. i have never forgotten their acts of kindness and i always try to find something i can do to support and help someone who needs it, even if it is just sharing words that i think may be a comfort to them –

  4. What a lovely post! November is a breather between busy festivities. What better things to concentrate on than helping others.

    1. Thanks, Catherine! November is the perfect time – well, for the first half, anyway – for such a reminder. Be there.

      Love the new blog look, by the way – can’t wait to have a look around.

  5. As always you say it just perfectly Eli and I have to say I would expect any less then you on this topic, because you are truly an awesome and wonderful friend always 🙂

  6. This post comes at the perfect time, as the mother of an old, old friend of mine just passed away. I hesitated at first to go to the viewing, but decided that I had to go. She needed a hug and told me so when I got there. Thanks for this.

    1. Sorry to hear about your friend’s mom. So glad you went – I know it’s no fun to go to such things, but when you’re in that receiving line, to see an old friend’s face means so much.

      You did good, Tania.

  7. Good reminders. It seems I know a lot of people who are facing their first holiday season without their parent/spouse/child, etc. I need to think on what I can do for them that’s genuine but not intrusive.

    I’ve already gotten invitations to two places for Thanksgiving since I will be alone this year. I am not sure if I will be able to take one or the other’s offers, but the idea that someone would be willing to share their holiday with me is very overwhelming (in a good way).

    1. Thanks. This could be an anxious time, before all the rush, for those in those situations. Genuine but not intrusive is the perfect way to think.

      Thanksgiving invites are a great idea. I hope you’ll accept one of those invitations. Or both, if one’s for dinner and one’s for lunch, which is perfect. #doggiebagsrock

      1. The invitations are for two different states, both opposite directions from Virginia. Without a TARDIS or a DeLorean I am outta luck for that option 🙂 It is nice to be asked though.

  8. I’m no stranger to having people show up for me. I was constantly surprised by the people who did – and did not – show up for us when Joey was sick and after his death. You can’t put people in a category either – the show-uppers or the nons – because you never know who is going to be who. It may possibly depend on their faith or upbringing or the fact that they have weathered tragedy themselves. I’m never sure. I hope I am one of those show-uppers. Thanks for writing this, Eli. And now I’m off to read Galit’s post. I always love her writing too.

    1. So glad people showed up for you Kathy, and I’m not surprised. Those things stick with us, don’t they? And you bring up a great point about not categorizing.

      Maybe those people needed someone to show up for them. And not everyone thinks this way.

      Galit’s post is awesome. Girl can write.

    1. Thanks Kim! Generosity season feels great – I just want us to remember those other times those close to us could use a little love.

      I think it’s a perfect combination to know what someone might need right then in that time of need, and knowing our own gifts to deliver it.

  9. When my Dad died, I was in my early 20’s, and had only been to a small handful of funerals. What impressed me most, and remains with me to this day, are not the countless people who showed up that I expected, but the countless that I did not expect… his friends from grade school, acquaintances of mine that I did not realize even knew my father had passed, random neighbors with whom we rarely interacted.

    From that point forward, I have tried to pay that kindness forward by being the random person, because I know what it means to a grieving person to know their loved one was appreciated.

    1. Thanks so much for sharing that story. One part I didn’t write about but hoped to address in comments was my walk to the car after my dad’s burial.

      I walked down the main road where people parked. I had a chance to wave or smile at most of the people who attended. Just to see how many people showed up made me quite proud of my dad.

      I love the lesson your dad’s funeral taught you. Have you ever written about it?

    2. I like what you said about being the random person. I try to do a bit of that through blogger and being a commenter…especially as I’ve had a broken foot and have been somewhat stationary and unable to be that person in the real world xx Rowena

  10. Supporting friends is so important, particularly during difficult times. And not only does it benefit the recipient of the kindness, the donor always feels better as well.

    1. You said it Gary. It’s the essence of friendship. It fuels us to give it and receive it. Just to be part of it. To know we can step up because others have stepped up for us.

  11. Great post!!! I have been fortunate that I haven’t had much on the sad side but have been able to help many friends when they needed it most.

  12. I’m crying here…

    So glad you had that boss and coworkers back then!

    I had read that post you’re referring to.
    I think people sometimes want to help, but they feel awkward and don’t know how.
    “Just show up” sounds too simple, but t is so much more than doing nothing.

    I remember some colleagues who turned out to be very good friends who showed up when I was heartbroken about my ex leaving me. Spent a couple of hours with me, taking walks, talking, listening.

    Seven years ago just about now, I had a chance to pay it forward. A friend at work was too depressed to get out of bed one day. I got her emergency phone counseling in her first language, talked to her relatives, made a doctor’s appointment, called or texted every day until she was ready to have visitors.

    Not sure if it means anything, but I haven’t been in touch with the ones who helped me lately – but I saw my friend who is back on track just recently.

    1. There’s a lot of power in taking a walk with someone, isn’t there? I had a friend at another job who would sense my angst and take a walk with me.

      I think I’d like to bake something for someone sometime. I hope it’s a long time until. I hope my friends and family stay happy and healthy. But I’ll be ready.

  13. I don’t think I can add anything that hasn’t already been said. I have always thought that kindness and generosity should happen all year, not only at the holidays. But any time it happens it’s a good thing and who knows if someone who jumps in on the giving in December will keep on going after…you just never know.

    1. I think it feels easier to participate in programs that help people we don’t know; I think it’s easier to toss out a “let me know if you need anything” to a friend in need.

      Random acts of kindness are awesome; planned acts of kindness are right up there with them.

      1. You know, that could be true. It’s harder to expose ourselves and humble ourselves to the people we know. And why is that? It shouldn’t be that way.

      2. I think sometimes with people we’re close to, we assume they will speak up and say what they need. They won’t – most people don’t like to ask for help for various reasons. So being the one to offer – or just do for them – makes it easier.
        I’ve learned this, too. Saying to a friend or colleague in need “let me know what I can do” (or some variation) will rarely get a response. Sometimes people can’t think what they need or don’t realize that something would be a help. Offering something specific like “what night can I bring you dinner” or “how about I drive the kids to school on Tuesday” or “I’m going to the market on Friday, I’ll take your list and drop off your groceries” often helps a lot.

  14. It is funny, I hear “let me know…” a lot. Now I respond if I have to let you know then that means that I don’t need you because I have time to ask. I have found my true village in the people that show up. Even if it is just they show up at the bus stop and check in. Before I had Bridget I never understood that it was more important to show up than to offer it.

    1. That puts it back on the person who could use a hand, doesn’t it, to say “let me know”? Great response you have for that.

      Your true village will take care of you. That’s not disparaging against the non-true village, because some of them just aren’t close enough to know what to do.

      There are 14,000 ways to show up. Now, Bridget will also know what it means to show up, from what you and others do. That’s what I want for my kids, too.

  15. Just beautiful, Eli. It is as simple as slowing down and remembering what we value in this world. Friendship and family top my list. And I consider it an honor to be able to show up, to offer help or companionship or words that may not have the wisdom I want but have all the love I can offer.

    You’re a Rock Star, Eli. Thanks for the heart post.

    1. Thanks, Melissa. Slowing down is a good way to put it – give it some thought, don’t just dismiss it with a “let me know if you need anything.” Basic to good friendship.

      It is an honor, isn’t it, to be in that friendship equation? To act out. No reciprocation required.

      Oh, I’m just playing in the band, Melissa. I’ll hold down the bass line.

  16. When my mother-in-law died, I was on maternity leave, so my work wasn’t a problem. I expecting my husband’s work to be an issue, because it’s not usually smooth sailing there, but surprisingly people pulled together and covered for him while he was out.It was nice to see that people can put aside their own wants to help out someone else.

  17. That story about your co-workers after your dad died just brought a tear (or many) to my eyes.
    I think sometimes it’s scary. It’s overwhelming. I personally get paralyzed. I’m there but I’m not as there as I could be because my brain stops working and doesn’t tell me to just do something without so much thinking. Without so much numbing.
    Scarlet gets it. My good friend’s mom passed away in March. It was.. terrible. Scarlet said, “Bring her cookies.” So I did and added in homemade soup. I went to the funeral and sat where she could see my eyes if she needed to look.

    It’s also nice to send cookies and mix cds. Yes, because it’s 1994 always.

  18. This is just so so important! So many people say the right words, but do they DO right? This was rather like my Coffee Chat this week… I hope I am more concerned with doing the right thing; than simply saying the right words. Being a blessing to someone else is the greatest thing you could ever give away. Being a helper reduces the negativity in this world – restores hope. But it is in the DOING.
    I have responded to 4 am text or Skype messages from a friend who just needed to unload a lot of anxiety and manic thoughts. She’s on the ledge… how do you walk away with just some words that would look nice on a Pinterest edit? No, you gotta dig in and go the distance.
    thanks for the reminder about the Operation Shoeboxes though! I had not picked mine up yet – we love doing this every year.

    1. Thanks Rore. Words are easy. And like Maya Angelou said, it’s how you make someone feel. We have to take care of each other. It IS in the doing.

      I think a friend like you is probably more tuned in to that need. it’s more than lip service. And honestly, it’s usually something low bandwidth, a simple act.

      Operation Christmas Child is awesome. Glad you do it.

  19. This is so nice, Eli. I couldn’t believe the outpouring of love and support last October when my dad died. One lesson I learned was to not ask what I can do for someone in need, instead, just do it. When you’re grieving, you don’t know what you need, and appreciate anything that people do for you. Now I don’t ask what I can do, I just call and say, “I’ll be over shortly with food. Do you need me to stop for milk on the way over?”

    1. Thanks Deb. So glad you got support during such a horrible time. I was lucky then, too. I love your approach. When your world is upside down, you’re in no spot to make requests.

  20. I was really touched by your post and I found your blog through the 1000 Voices FB page. I have shared a story of incredible compassion I came across where an Australian journalist and photographer who were in the Ukraine covering the crash of MH17 collected sunflower seeds collected from the site at the time and are now making arrangements to get them to family and friends of those who died. It is an incredible story: https://beyondtheflow.wordpress.com/2015/01/21/compassion-in-action-sowing-sunflower-seeds/
    I have received a lot of kindness. A friend of mine has driven the kids to and from school a lot following chemo last year. people have given me meals. However, there are people who will walk into someone with a walking stick and the other day I almost got hit by a car who drove straight through the pedestrian crossing when I was walking across with my walking stick and broken foot in a boot. However, the good eggs far outweigh the bad xx Rowena

    1. I think the good eggs make the world so much more palatable. We want to have these good eggs in our life, but the best way to do that is to be one.

      Thank you for your comment and follow, and for sharing that post. Incredible! As long as people keep navigating life with heart, we’ll all be in a better place.

  21. Many times people are still so in shock when something has just happened, they don’t even know what to ask for you to do. I find it better not to ask an open ended question early on, but to name a specific thing like, “Let me get your dry cleaning done.” Also, we need to remember they hurt way longer than the week or two afterward. Be the person that is there two months later, or on that “special” day that will be so hard for them.
    Faith: #TheWordonWords at Life & Faith in Caneyhead.

    1. It’s not a time to think clearly, is it, Barbara? Especially if you frame the favor as something that isn’t a big deal – “I’m headed to the dry cleaners – let me take your stuff, too.”

      We’re all hurting at some point or another. Sustained empathy seems to be a great idea to cover that, doesn’t it?

  22. I’m grateful for the opportunity to empathize with others in good times and bad. Being kind, generous and sensitive to the needs of the people around us is one of the most basic human acts we should all strive to practice. That, and feeding people which is my other soft spot. Good and bad vibes always circle back around. Always choose good. Always.

    1. It’s good that we’re open to that, Melissa. Often, we’re more concerned with what we need to recognize what’s going on around us.

      And the feeding is a big-time response! Not only should we choose good, but, as is the topic for a post for another day, we should do good for the sake of doing good, nothing else. (It’s the big problem I have with karma!)

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