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Advances in health and medicine.
Marjorie Bekaert Thomas
Advances in health and medicine.
Mental Health Channel
Reported October 11, 2004

Comforting Words: What do I say?

ORLANDO, Fla. (Ivanhoe Broadcast News) -- Whether it's finding out someone has lost a loved one, that someone you know has been diagnosed with an illness, or even has ended a relationship, the situation is almost always uncomfortable. Here are some tips on the right things to say.

For Nance Guilmartin, people who are grieving are like turtles. "If someone is so sad that they are so withdrawn, they don't exactly want you to try to pull them out of their shell," she says.

That means knowing the right words to say. "I teach people sometimes you just need to be with the turtle and make it safe for them to stick their neck out a little bit," Guilmartin, who wrote "Healing Conversations: What to Say When You Don't Know What to Say," tells Ivanhoe.

Robbie Miller Kaplan's experience was far from comforting after her newborn daughter died from a heart defect. "My neighbor told me it was a blessing in disguise," this author of "How to Say it When You Don't Know What to Say," tells Ivanhoe.

And when her husband was diagnosed with prostate cancer, she encountered even more hurtful remarks. "If you had to get cancer, this is a good one to get," she says.

Guilmartin also remembers the pain she felt from insensitive comments made after her mother died unexpectedly. She says, "We say them usually out of our desire to put somebody else out of their pain, but it's really more about putting us out of our discomfort with their discomfort."

According to Guilmartin, before you say a word, breathe, and don't always start with "I'm sorry." "By the time you have heard five or 10 or 15 'I am so sorries,' people begin to feel like you feel sorry for them, and it's not necessarily comforting," she says.

"How are you?" may seem sympathetic, but it's too big. "It is even better to say, 'How are you doing this afternoon? How are the kids doing?'"

She says it's OK to be at a complete loss -- just don't avoid the topic or the person. She says, "You can say, 'I am not even sure what to say to you right now.'"

After being diagnosed with breast cancer, Susan Kuner and Carol Orsborn wrote "Speak the Language of Healing: Living With Breast Cancer Without Going to War." Kuner says whatever you do, don't say, "You'll be fine."

"You can't promise someone will be fine. Just, once again, say, 'I'm glad to see you,'" she says.

They ask people to be sensitive in the words they choose.

Orsborn says, "We don't want to be victims. We just want to be people who have been diagnosed with breast cancer."

Through various struggles in her life, the words of a friend helped Guilmartin find the peace she was looking for. "He would say, 'I know you cannot see it right now, and I am not trying to make you see it now, but I have faith that one day things are going to get better,'" she says. Eventually for Guilmartin, things did get better.

Guilmartin also points out that sometimes actions speak louder than words. All it takes is a gentle look or a soft touch. If you want more tips on what to do to help someone cope, log onto /comfort.

This article was reported by, who offers Medical Alerts by e-mail every day of the week. To subscribe, go to: /newsalert/.

If you would like more information, please contact:

Robbie Miller Kaplan

Nance Guilmartin

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