Afternoon Inquisition

Afternoon Inquisition 6.1.09

As some of you who follow me on Twitter and Facebook know, last week my husband and I received some tragic and heartbreaking news. The outpouring of support from the skeptical community was unbelievable. I received messages of sorrow, sympathy, compassion, support and many people shared their personal stories with me, offered help, and joined us for mindless (and fun) Mario Kart races online. It was so touching and it really made the last few days easier. Thanks to you people, and your kindness, we are healing faster and coping healthier than we expected (or planned.)

When people I know go through hard times, it’s hard for me to find the right thing to say… back in the day it was easy to say, “I’ll be praying for you.” It’s something I could actually do and it offered comfort. Now I fumble for words, and usually end up offering help that I’d be surprised if the person took me up on (no matter how sincere the offer is) and letting them know they are in my thoughts. I feel so helpless… more helpless when something happens to a friend than when something happens to me.

Do you ever know the right thing to say when a friend is in need? What do you tell them? Have you ever offered prayers even though you don’t believe? Or do you believe praying DOES help, at least on some level? What do you do? What do you say? How do you help?


Elyse MoFo Anders is the bad ass behind forming the Women Thinking, inc and the superhero who launched the Hug Me! I'm Vaccinated campaign as well as podcaster emeritus, writer, slacktivist extraordinaire, cancer survivor and sometimes runs marathons for charity. You probably think she's awesome so you follow her on twitter.

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  1. I always say I will keep the person in my thoughts. I offer concrete help, and try and be specific. For example, can I bring dinner, watch the kids, walk the dog, pay a bill, talk a walk with them, etc. I mostly just let them know I am available for them.

  2. I tell people I am thinking of them. I think that’s the secular equivalent of praying for them.
    And sometimes it actually helps me think of a way to help them.

  3. I keep it simple: “I’m very sorry. Is there anything I can do to help? “

    And I’m always up for making meals or a pot of soup if folk need a break from cooking.

  4. First, I listen to what the problem is, and just let them vent. Often, that’s all that can be done to help, because there is no solution to the problem. In cases like illnesses, family deaths, etc. giving them someone to talk with who isn’t directly involved can be a big help psychologically.

    Then, after they’ve done that I simply ask, “What can I do?” If they don’t actually have an answer I offer help do something that might help alleviate their stress. Watch the kiddies while mommy takes daddy to the hospital (gives my daughter a playmate and makes it so the spouse doesn’t have the added stress of watching the kids while the other gets their treatment or whatever), have them over and fix dinner one evening (food and socialization), etc.

    Of course, if finances allow I’ll give, or raise, some money to help them if they could use it.

  5. I just went back over your Twitter updates to figure out what was going on. I’d somehow completely missed it. Oh dear. Not sure what to say, other than: (hugs).

    I guess that answers the first question. No, I never know what to say and usually end up saying something awkward. I’m guessing that, for most people, it’s not what’s said but the fact that someone’s there to say it.

  6. Actions are best.

    When sucky things happen, there are no words that exist to take the suck away, so there’s no point trying to find them. All you can do with words is acknowledge that shit sucks, and affirm that you wish them the best.

    Beyond that, actions help the most. Make a meal, give a hug, share a bottle, do a chore, or just sit and listen.

  7. @Steve: Exactly.

    I do the whole “you are in my thoughts” thing and I try to connect in some way… for example being able to say “I went through something similar and what helped me was just time and the comfort of friends/family. You are strong and I know you will be ok.” Which is what I tried to convey to you Lady E.

  8. This is a question I’ve been mulling over in my mind often lately. I want to pray, I wish I could pray….but deep down inside I know that no matter how much I may cry out to believe, there is still no god to answer me. What helps me is to recognize that what i want is to not feel alone. When people say that I’m in their prayers, I usually redirect the conversation by asking, “How about a hug?” A hug does more towards helping me feel like I’m not alone than any silent offering to an imaginary deity/neutral universe.
    Btw, I’ve lost a couple pregnancies over the years, early and late. It never gets easier, and people never say the right thing…the right thing would be to have that little living piece of you and your lover in your arms. Anything short of that is heartbreaking, regardless of how well-intentioned the friends. The kindest thing a friend can do is show compassion and complete understanding whether you feel like spending the night rolling sushi and emptying wine bottles by the crate or watching Steel Magnolias with a gallon of Blue Bell. Its the smallest of considerations and memories that have stayed with me over the years.

    However, if one more person says “When God closes a door…” I WILL kick them in the genitals (gender neutral).

    ((hugs, Elyse))

  9. I just say I’m sorry and offer help and/or a hug depending on how well I know the person. I also always offer to listen. I’m a vary good listener. Not a very good talker but a fantastic listener.

    I’m very sorry to hear what you are going through. I’ve been in similar situations and all I can offer is many, many *hugs*.

  10. @Ashley.Ele:

    However, if one more person says “When God closes a door…” I WILL kick them in the genitals (gender neutral).

    When God closes a door, what? What happens? The doctor forces open my cervix? Is that the same as a window? Because it’s fucking bloody. It’s disgusting… and if that’s the window you’re talking about, I don’t want it open.

    (Because I’m an angry snarky hormonal grieving bitch… and you know, it’s one of those times when you can get away with that punch-in-the-nuts kind of response)

  11. i haven’t the slightest idea of what’s the best thing to say. if it’s something i haven’t been through (or at least something similar) i tend to think that i can’t possibly say anything useful, or even meaningful. i’m constantly worried that the person i’m trying to let know that i feel very sorry that they are going through that will think “he has no idea what it’s like so where does he get off saying that?” those situations are horrendously awkward for me. i don’t want to ignore it yet i’m constantly afraid that i’ll say something that will just make the person feel worse about it than me not saying anything at all. i usually say something like i’m sorry to hear that, or i’m thinking of you. all of which seems totally inadequate to me. i’d offer to help but when does that offer some across as creepy, or hollow? i never say it if i don’t mean it, but often am afraid to say it when i do because of this.

  12. I first offer condolences. Then if we are close I usually follow up with, “I’m going to do X for you unless you ask me not to.” The X varies based on the person. It could be drop by a meal, take them out for drinks, or go down on them for an hour. It all depends on the person and the circumstance. I do not ask, “Is there anything I can do for you” because the polite answer is always “no” making it a rather pointless and hollow question.

    My wife and I went through the same thing and my mother said, “That’s why you don’t tell anyone until the second trimester.” I’ve never said “fuck you” to my mother, but I came very close that day. Actually this segues nicely to another issue. My wife was still technically pregnant when we found out even though the sonogram showed no fetus. Our options were to wait it out knowing the inevitable conclusion or schedule a DNC. This is why it is so stupid to mix laws and medical decisions. I’m so glad I don’t live in a state where this would have gotten us mixed up in anti-abortion laws.

  13. It’s all very circumstantial. Sometimes I feel I sort of know what to say; sometimes absolutely not at all. Prayer is certainly out of the question.

    The one thing I make an exerted effort to do is to NOT drop platitudes. You know, none of that “Oh everything’ll be all better soon.” None of that crap thank you very much. Platitudes diminish and dismiss.

  14. I am sorry for your loss. Nothing can ease that pain but time. In a counselling course I took, we were instructed not to talk about what we had been through, to say, for example “they’re in a better place” or to offer meaningless platitudes. What most people need in a time of loss is someone to -listen- and someone to help out with the normal everyday stuff that gets so, so hard when you’re in such pain. To know someone is thinking of you is supportive, but actually physically being there is so much more. Actions speak louder than words, especially going through something like this.
    Stay strong.

  15. Lots and lots of empathy. I reflect back to the person the feelings they are expressing, so that they know I am hearing them. I focus on the other person. I encourage the person to talk if they want to, but not insistently in case they don’t. Offers of hugs are good. Offers of help, too, with specific suggestions.

    Things I avoid
    – qualifiers such as “you must be feeling….” because if they are not, likely I won’t be perceived as supportive.
    – focussing on myself. “I feel saddened by your loss” is no where near as effective as “You feel devastated by your loss.”
    – general offers of help are almost always turned down. Specific offers stand a better chance, especially if there is a choice “Can I cook something for you, or take the kids for a while?” Just doing something and presenting it fait accompli often works if you know the people, but I’ve never tried it with someone I don’t know.

    When my mother died, I cooked for three families, mine and my siblings’. It was my way of coping in the short term, so I turned down all offers of cooking help from friends. I would have accepted an offer from family (in case they were feeling like I was) but thankfully there weren’t any. Because of that experience, I’m careful about doing things without asking. Several friends went ahead and made things anyway (mostly appies or goodies) which were appreciated.

  16. I don’t know what to do and it greatly pains me that I can’t do something. I say I am sorry and ask what I can do to help and try to think of something that no one else would think of. Usually involving nitric oxide which triggers universal healing mechanisms.

  17. The only good praying does in cases like this is let the person know you care. Sadly, there are people who will think you don’t care if you won’t pray. They’ll never believe you really don’t think it’ll do a bit of good in the whole wide world. Does this mean I’ll pray? No. They’ll just have to deal with it.

  18. I just offer hugs, a shoulder and an ear to listen. It’s not enough, of course. Oh, and booze and chocolate sometimes help. I think the hard part is that some people just don’t want to ask for what they need right then. So, mostly, I try to empathize and just be there. I think knowing that there’s a support structure around if you need it is probably the most helpful thing.

  19. @Elyse: I’m not linked to you in Facebook and I don’t Twitter, so I had to read above to figure out what happened. My thoughts are with you and “Mr. Elyse.”

    As a parent myself, I cannot imagine what you are going through. (Hug) As trite and cliche as it sounds, I do feel your pain. I am so tremendously sorry that this happened to you.
    :’ (

    I’m too far from you to offer anything other than moral support and an ear, I’m afraid. In my sorta-native neck of the woods (WI), we would be offering or just doing the things Berlzebub had in the post above.

  20. I found myself trying to find the right words this morning. It’s much easier when it’s someone you know rather than an acquaintance. To someone I do not know and only follow on Twitter, this morning I simply stated You are in my thoughts, thank you for all the laughs you give, glad to hear you caught the cancer early.

    But as others before me have mentioned, I usually offer to help with something, being specific and detailed about that “thing” so they know it’s genuine.

  21. @nollidge:

    Man, you look an awful lot like mikespeir! Expect me to mix you two up in the near future.

    Anyway, words AREN’T useless. Almost every person who has contacted me over the past few days has been someone who can’t do anything physically to help… but the words were so helpful. Each person who contacted us made us realize how loved we were… while it didn’t make the suckage go away, it was really nice just to hear kind words – words of love and empathy and sympathy. Words to remind us that we have friends who appreciate us. Stories to remind us we’re not alone.

    Really, it was words that helped us through the weekend. It is words that help us grieve. Words are wonderful.

    And it’s like every person who contacted us knew exactly the right thing to say… ok, not EVERY person, there were a couple awkward things said, but they were said with sincere love and compassion… I wish I had that gift – to know what to say… or to know what to do.

  22. @mikespeir:

    Of course praying doesn’t really do any good… but when you THINK it does, and the person who is hurting THINKS it does, it does a few things:

    1. Lets the person know you care
    2. Lets the person know you are doing something to help
    3. Gives you something to do that is significant (In that you’re pleading your case to the most powerful being in all of creation)

    I guess it does give pray-ers (people who pray) an advantage in that they don’t feel so helpless in situations where they really are otherwise helpless.

    I don’t offer prayers. When people offer their prayers, I usually just thank them.

  23. Oh… and thank you to everyone for your kind words.

    Like I’ve said, REALLY, your words mean more than you can know… plus, they have the added bonus of doubling as answers to this question!

  24. @Elyse:

    “When God closes a door, what?”

    I’ve always said, “God never closes a door without opening a beer,” but without exception I receive a “Huh!?” look. If nobody gets my sense of humor, does that mean I don’t have one?

    I seldom know what to say in situations like this, but I’m glad you seem to have a deluge of well-wishers to help you through this disheartening time.

  25. No, I never know what the right thing to say is. I’ve had such a lucky life. My parents are alive, I’ve won all of the custody suits my ex has brung, I don’t know what to say, I usually just say I’m so sorry for what happened and I mean it, if they are important to me I tell them I love them and that I am very sorry. I always feel so stupid, I know there has to be something better, it always feels so small, so little, not enough. Elyse, Kaylia I cried when I realized what happened, I have a lump in my throat right now. I am so, sincerly sorry for you loss.

  26. I think that James Fox and Berlzebub pretty much hit the nail on the head for most cases.

    Past that, Elyse, no two people or couples ever experience the same thing even when the ‘event’ is the same for them. So I don’t know how you are feeling or how ‘Mr. Elyse’ is dealing with the news. But having been through something similar with my wife I can say to you that I am sorry for what you are experiencing right now and like most people here I wish I could help. Best to you both. :/

  27. @Ashley.Ele: “I want to pray, I wish I could pray….but deep down inside I know that no matter how much I may cry out to believe, there is still no god to answer me.”

    I am always surprised by such certainty on this point. However, I agree with everything else you said there. Particularly the point about ‘not feeling alone’. I believe that one thing makes more of a difference than anything else that a person can do for someone in a time of difficulty. Just letting the person know, really know, (as in do something to evidence it… just saying so doesn’t do anything), can make all the difference.

  28. I never know what to say, to the point where its become something of a joke in my family. Those close to me realise that when I respond to bad news (no matter how bad) with “Oh, dear”, its not because I’m indifferent to their pain, but because I can’t find the words.

    I suspect I come off as a heartless monster to people I don’t know as well though.

  29. @Kaylia_Marie: I had a friend that miscarried a son several years ago. She convinced herself that it was God’s punishment for her wanting a girl, and admitted this to a room full of people. It was tragic.

    Elyse – I wish you and Mr. Elyse the best as you cope with your loss.

  30. This is just me, but I would rather think of someone in a crisis and then help them out in concrete ways than to just be like a lot of religulous people that say, “I’m praying for you” and promptly forget all about you afterwards.

    That was one of the things that led me to leave religion behind. There were too many people on their knees and not getting their hands dirty actually helping someone.

    One of the few Xtians I admire is Jimmy Carter for his work with Habitat for Humanity. Others are Harry Connick Jr. and Waylon Marsalis for their work in New Orleans after Katrina.

  31. JayK, Elyse, Kayla_Marie,

    As far as I’m concerned, comments like “It’s God’s punishment for X” is emotional abuse. Period.

    People that say things like that have a warm spot near the fires of their Hell, just waiting for them.

  32. Elyse, I’m so sorry. I don’t have Twitter so I missed this update, but I am very sorry to hear what you had to go through.

    And really, that’s all you can say. If you’ve experienced something similar, you can try to share the grief and assure them that you understand, but even if you haven’t, you can just express your sorrow. I just say that I’m sorry, and ask what my friend needs or what I can do.
    And no, I never pray or offer prayers or pretend to pray. Thankfully, I’ve never been asked “will you pray for me?” or anything similarly awkward.
    A close friend did recently have a loss in her life, though, and I was able to say, “you’ll be in my thoughts but not in my prayers,” which was true and also cheered her up a bit because she wasn’t expecting it.

    My husband, on the other hand, is exceptionally awful at offering sympathy. He always says exactly the wrong thing at exactly the wrong time. But he, also, never says he will pray for you.

  33. @Elyse:

    That’s true, I was a bit glib there, and was mostly speaking for myself. I just know that I shouldn’t try to say anything specifically, because then it’s insincere and/or unhelpful. But calling someone up to let them know you are thinking about them is surely comforting.

  34. I never have anything useful to say. The last thing anyone needs to hear when coping with tragedy is some trite platitude. And sharing my own tragedy seems more self-serving than comforting– rather putting the focus on myself rather than o the one who needs a bit of comfort. So I’m not comfortable saying anything, really.

    This is why I am not a counsellor.

  35. First, Elyse – I am so sorry.
    My friend, Dan, was in a boating accident, and spent a couple of weeks on the ventilator. When he finally was extubated his wife was telling him about all the people who prayed for him. She is quite religious – Dan and I are not at all. I looked at him and said, “Dan, I was the only one not praying for you. But I sure thought about you” He couldn’t talk (having had the tube tickling his vocal chords for a couple weeks) but he smiled and gave me a thumbs up.

    Mostly, I was there, every day, in the ICU, helping his wife and family through the maze of doctor talk. It is much harder when someone you care about is far away.

    In this case, Elyse is someone who I have traded quips with on twitter a time or two, or here, but who I intrinsically like as a person. So, all I can do is say – I am so sorry, and there is nothing really that I can do or offer other than to say I shall get you a buzz aldrin the second I have a chance should I ever meet you in person.

  36. @QuestionAuthority: It’s emotional abuse when someone else says it. My friend was saying it about herself. The most accurate term that comes to mind for that is self loathing.

    I can’t imagine having that sort of a mindset – if something good happens, God causes it, but if something bad happens, it’s either your own fault or the forces of evil (eeeeevul?).

    I suppose for some it’s simply easier to believe that there are external forces in control rather than simply accept that sometimes really bad things happen for no discernable reason and the only thing we can do is live on as best we can.

  37. What I say and do depends a lot on how close I am. For dear friends and family, I don’t offer my help – I just start helping. Having been on the other side of things (losing my dad at 17), I know how tempting it is for those grieving to “not be any trouble” and turn down even sincere offers of help. Don’t take that shit – just help.

    Beyond that, there are really two things you can do: distraction and reminiscing.

    By distraction, I mean do things to allow the grieving to think about something else for just a little while. But making sure they aren’t alone, and that they can escape dwelling on their loss for a while, is a huge help. I know I welcomed continual invitations over for dinner and the like – not from those people who were “delicate” the entire time, but from dear friends who told funny stories and played video games with me.

    Be reminiscing, I mean remembering the good times. The grieving will cry, but that’s ok (even therapeutic, in some ways). It’s a reminder of the sadness, but a great comfort, to know that other people remember dead loved ones well.

    And don’t worry too much about saying the wrong thing – you might, of course, but people will remember that you were there, even if you said something accidentally hurtful. Being there, and trying, is important regardless.

    That said, don’t pretend to know how the grieved feel, or trot out “old standards” just to be saying something – they’re grieving, not stupid. If in doubt, just be there and listen.

  38. Elyse,

    I’ve been following skepchick for a long time, but I just registered.

    I am so sorry for what happened to you and your family. My wife and I have experienced pregnancy loss also. If there is anything we can do to help, please let me know. After the D&C following my wife’s first miscarriage, I did not want to say everything will be OK, because I didn’t know it would be. I didn’t want to lie to my wife. I held her and said “I’m here.” That was the best I could do at the time. You don’t know me from Adam, but I am here for you and yours. It’s the best I can offer.

    To answer your question, I think people try to say something helpful, but often get hung up on the words. What one person finds encouraging another person in grief most certainly does not. Like Ashley.Ele’s comment about the “When God closes a door he opens a window” platitude. Sometimes yes, sometimes no, and sometimes you get punched in the genitals – deservedly. So if your husband’s boss should suddenly find his/her genitals impacted in the roof of his/her mouth – I’ll swear you were with me the whole time.

  39. I never know what to say, and never want to say anything to upset people that are grieving.
    I just try to express my honest sympathy.

    Elyse, I am sorry.

  40. @JayK:
    Good point. It is sad that some people think that way. Talk about living in fear. I thought the doG of the bible was a loving one to his people.

    Guess not.

  41. Elyse, sorry this happened to your family.

    Our second son died at 12 weeks pregnancy. No reason.

    As it was for us, at the time, we were still christian believers. I even said the memorial service for him. I was amazed how painful his death actually was. We didn’t realize we had already had plenty of plans and dreams for that boy.

    It wasn’t until we broke through into the light of reality that we actually dealt with his death.

    Sure, it gets better. If it didn’t, we’d all be useless to those of us still alive.

    No escaping it, it’s a crap time. It’s a pity when anyone has to endure it.



  42. @MoltenHotMagma: I am always surprised by that as well. For years I remained noncommittal, but its slowly settled into a fundamental truth, kinda anti-skeptic to think of it that way.

    Of course, I welcome being proved wrong on anything, even this.

  43. *hugs Elyse*

    My only pregnancy ended at 13 weeks, and I had to deny it so I wouldn’t face the disdain and scolding of my christian friends and family. (no one knew I was pregnant) It hurt. A lot.

    But even years later, when I told my current husband, and he hugged me and said “that sucks” it helped. So much of what makes life suck just needs to be acknowleged, recognized that it meant something, y’know.

    So, hugs to Elyse and Mr. Elyse and all the others who’ve been along the same path. It happened, it hurt, and that’s okay.

  44. Re: pray-ers. I found that it felt just as useless as doing nothing; even when I thought god existed I knew I couldn’t change his plans.

    Second, what do I do? It depends on geography. 1. Drop off unsolicited casseroles without demanding to be let in. 2. Let them know that they can hide out at my house as much as necessary. 3. Let them know they can call me to talk whenever they feel the need.

    True listening can be very difficult when you are trying to be useful (i.e. talking).

    The offer stands this weekend, too — if you want to come hide out at my apartment while I’m riding to WI just let me know.

  45. @Ashley.Ele: ” I am always surprised by that as well. For years I remained noncommittal, but its slowly settled into a fundamental truth, kinda anti-skeptic to think of it that way.

    Of course, I welcome being proved wrong on anything, even this.”

    Well, I’m not about to throw stones for having an opinion on it. I’ve gone the other way and take as a ‘fundamental truth’ that there is a God out there.

    I think that is one of the big questions that really can’t be ‘Answered’ and as a skeptic we each just have to go the way that the evidence and logic leads us, (believe it or not.. I was an athiest for ages before starting the drift to agnosticism and then finally belief). *shrug*

    The thing I suspect that we both agree on here is that all those people out there ‘praying’ for people instead of actually doing something useful are, at best, self-deluded if they think they are actually accomplishing anything.

  46. @MoltenHotMagma:
    I’ve come to the conclusion that there is a small, but finite possibility that there is a “higher power.” However, that makes me more of a strong agnostic than a believer. We each have our own lives, thought processes and experiences. I hope that there may be something else after death, but I don’t count on it. Thre simply isn’t any data, so I am comfortable with the uncertainty. Meanwhile, I live the best life I can. I suppose Dante would include me in with the “virtuous pagans” in his Inferno. I can guarantee you this: When you get older, your views on these things will shift. It’s part of what our culture jokingly calls “midlife crisis.” It is inaptly named, as for many it’s no crisis and does not necessarily happen at midlife. (The average age is 40 +/- 20 years. How’s THAT for an error bar??)

    Example: Last night, I had a very wierd experience on Facebook. I took a Tarot card quiz as a lark. The prediction of my state of mind was frighteningly accurate. Do I believe in Tarot? No. Did it get me thinking in new ways about my current major issues? Yes. Insomuch as it did that, it had value.

    There are questions out there that I have no way of answering. Perhaps they are unknowable in the deepest philosophical sense. So yes, I can agree with your opinion on the big questions. “I don’t know” is a perfectly valid response. That does not imply anything other than a lack of facts on which to decide.

    I cannot believe that a higher power would need or want our prayers/worship/supplications, for some of the exact reasons shown in, of all things, “Bruce Almighty.” I would much rather see people acting in concrete ways to help others a la Golden Rule, than praying or spinning prayer wheels or whatever. Incidentally, Morgan Freeman’s character was much more what I could see as “God” than the fundie’s schizophrenic Biblical God.

    One of my Xtian family members likes to say that “The Good Lord provides everything, but you have to get out of the nest to get it.” I agree with the sentiment, which is why I admire people like Jimmy Carter.

    Ms. September 2008, I bow to your actions for those needing help. That is much like my neighbors in WI treated us and we treated them in times of dire need. I think it may be a regional thing, as I see little of it where I live now.

    Learning to really listen is very hard work. In general, we all can hear, but many fewer can listen. That’s one reason why gifted counselors, psychologists and psychiatrists make such good money. By the way, If anyone sees Counselor Troi, would you have her call me to schedule an appointment? ;-)

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