What Do I Say to a Friend After A Severe Accident?

Reader’s Question

I know a girl, we were aquaintances for awhile, and she has recently been in a very bad car accident. She is 23 years old, and a quadraplegic for life now it seems. She has a young son and her mother is caring for the boy. She is still in the hospital. I feel like I really want to go see her.

I feel like I need to see her. This has been extremely hard for me, and I feel so much pain for her. I want to see her, but I am afraid. What do you say to someone who is so young and has suffered such a huge loss? What do you say to them? I’m sorry doesn’t seem the right thing, I don’t know if there is a right thing. Please help. I don’t want to go see her and say something to make her feel worse, or frustrate her even more. I do want her to know that I feel so awful for her, care about her and if she needs anything at all, that I am here.

Psychologist’s Reply

People have a “comfortable conversation” range when it comes to social situations. Everyone can talk about parking tickets because most of us have received one. Pregnant women might hear hundreds of pregnancy/delivery/labor stories when they go to the grocery because so many other women have been in the same situation. The more rare the event, the more difficult it is to discuss and the more uncomfortable people become. As a parent, if your child is expelled from school, several parents are comfortable talking about that because their child was also expelled. Parents who experience the death of a child find that very few friends, neighbors, and co-workers have the social skills or experience to discuss the situation.

Your friend has experienced one of those very rare and overpowering life events. Our normal tendency is to want to say something helpful and supportive. From her standpoint, she may only want to know that people are concerned. Some guidelines:

  1. Visit with the idea that you are showing support, not offering words of wisdom.
  2. Don’t use any old sayings like “Tomorrow is another day”.
  3. Don’t tell bizarre stories like “I heard of a guy who was hit by lightning and regained his sight”.
  4. Express your support — exactly as you did in the last two parts of your last sentence — You care about her and if she needs anything at all, you’re there to help.
  5. Ask if you can help in any way, leave your phone number, etc.
  6. She will determine the content of the conversation. She probably has a “press release” about her accident and condition so you’ll hear that. From that point, she may want to chat about friends, your life, etc. Go with the flow of the conversation.
  7. Be yourself and be natural. Don’t visit as though you are playing a role. She’ll be happy to see you, not some fake person.
  8. She may not feel like visitors so if you get the feeling that she’s tired or doesn’t want visitors — politely leave and ask to come back another time.

In these situations, emotional support is being there — not words of wisdom. You don’t need to say anything profound. Sometimes it’s like having a fishing buddy — he doesn’t need to say anything intelligent — he just needs to sit there with you and chat from time to time.

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