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Expert Advice

How to talk to a loved one about hardship—and why it matters

As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across the globe, more and more people are facing sudden and extreme hardship. If someone you’re close to is grieving the loss of a loved one, fearing for their own health and safety, working on the front lines, or facing the prospect of poverty or homelessness, it can be hard to know what to do or say—especially if you can’t be with them in person. However, the simple act of reaching out and listening can still help. Below, you’ll find suggestions for starting a conversation, asking questions, offering support, and staying connected. You may not be able to change their circumstances, but you can make them feel seen and understood—and that truly does make a difference.

When a friend or loved one going through a hard time, it’s natural to want to cheer them up, distract them, or avoid the topic altogether. Those responses are well-intentioned, but they may be the opposite of what the person actually needs. According to Sheila Heen, co-author of Difficult Conversations, starting a an open dialogue about what your loved one is experiencing is one of the most helpful things you can do. Experts suggest that there are real benefits to talking about hardship; when we put our emotions into words, they become less overwhelming, and we feel less alone.

Perhaps you’re hesitant to start a conversation because you don’t want to say the wrong thing or remind them of their problems. In fact, saying something—anything—lets them know that you’re thinking about them and you care.

Read the tips

Reach out—even if you’re nervous

There will never be a perfect moment or an exactly right phrase for reaching out to someone who’s hurting, but letting them know that you want to talk is the quickest way to help them feel less isolated. If you’re thinking about your friend or loved one, that’s reason enough to start a conversation. Be authentic—if you feel awkward, you can share that honestly. Just let them know that you’re committed to pushing past the initial discomfort and understanding how they want to be supported right now.

If you’re not sure what to say, you might find it easier to acknowledge that up front. Keep it simple and sincere—“I don’t know exactly what you need to hear right now, but I wanted to tell you that I care about you so much.”


Let them set the time, place, and tone

When you bring up a difficult subject, be prepared to postpone the conversation if the other person is busy, distracted, or with someone (such as a young child) with whom they’d rather not share details. You can put them in control by saying something like, “I love you and want to support you. Just let me know if and when you feel like talking. It doesn’t have to be today.” When they are ready to talk, let them set the tone—they may need to laugh, cry, or do some of each—and be open to changing the subject or taking a break.

It’s also possible that someone who’s hurting won’t want to talk about their experience right away, or even at all. If they seem reluctant to open up, don’t push them. You can still be supportive by checking in and letting them share anything else that’s on their mind.


Ask questions—and follow-ups

Sincere and thoughtful questions let your loved one know that you care about their experience and want to understand what they’re feeling. Try to keep your questions focused but open-ended; for example:

  • Instead of a general question like “How are you?”—which can feel like an offhand greeting rather than a sincere invitation to talk—ask, “How are you doing today?”
  • Instead of a yes-or-no question like “Are you feeling okay?” ask something that invites them to share more details, such as “How are you feeling right now?”
  • Instead of a question that assumes or suggests an answer (for example, “Have you been thinking a lot about what happened?”) ask a neutral question like “What’s been going through your mind?”

Once your loved one has shared the broad strokes of what they’re going through, ask follow-up questions based on the specific feelings and experiences they’ve mentioned. This reinforces to them that you’re listening, engaged, and open to talking for as long as they need.

It may also be helpful to ask questions that invite your loved one to tell the story of their loss or hardship in detail, in their own words. Research shows that telling our stories helps us process the things that have happened to us, feel validated and heard, and find meaning and purpose in our struggles. Let your loved one know you’re open to hearing their story by asking simple questions like “Do you want to tell me more about what happened?” or “Would it help to tell me how it happened?”


Listen without trying to fix the problem

When a friend or loved one is struggling, you may wish you could make the problem go away—but try not to jump straight to solutions. Your loved one will most likely need time to process what’s happened before they’re ready to think about the next step. Similarly, do your best to avoid comments that begin with “You should” or “You will” or any statements that minimize their pain, such as “Well, everything happens for a reason” or “I went through a similar experience once, and I’m fine now.”

Instead, acknowledge the gravity of what they’re going through by saying things like:

  • “That sounds so hard”
  • “This is so unfair”
  • “You must really miss them”
  • “I’m so sorry this happened—it sucks”
  • “I know I can’t fix it, but I’m here for you no matter what”


Help them identify their coping strategies

When someone you love is facing a challenge, it can help to remind them of the tools they have to cope and the things over which they have control. This doesn’t need to happen in every conversation, and shouldn’t take precedence over letting them share and be vulnerable—but if you see a natural opportunity, you can turn the discussion toward coping strategies by asking questions like:

  • “Are there any specific actions or rituals that have helped you feel better?”
  • “Since this happened, have there been any moments when you felt peaceful or comforted? What helped you feel that way?”
  • “Is there anything you’ve done recently that has brought you joy, even if only for a few seconds?”
  • “Is there anything you’ve been telling yourself, or anything others have reminded you of, that feels calming?”
  • “What does your intuition say you need to feel safer or better?

Questions like these can help the person rediscover for themselves that they are strong and capable—which is more empowering than simply hearing you tell them they will be okay.


Keep checking in

As your conversation winds down, remind your loved one that you’re always available to talk or spend time together. Follow up with regular texts or calls, and set reminders to reach out on days that may be especially difficult for them, such as birthdays and anniversaries. People who experience hardship often receive an outpouring of support in the first few weeks or months and then feel forgotten as friends and family turn back to their everyday routines—so even if it’s just a quick weekly hello, being there for them over the long term can make a huge difference.

During these follow-up conversations, keep in mind that the pain your loved one is feeling may never fully go away. Don’t push them to “get over it” or expect that they’ll be “back to their old self” after a certain number of months or years. Encourage them to share whatever they’re feeling, and listen without judgment. If they’re struggling to care for themselves—for example, if they mention that they’re consistently having trouble sleeping, eating, or performing basic tasks—you may want to encourage them to speak with their doctor or a therapist.

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