Keeping silent and ignoring someone's struggle is just about the worst thing you can do. In my experience, people would prefer someone to try and comfort them - and say the wrong thing - than not check in with them at all.
Simple questions such as, How are you going? and How have you been lately? are usually enough to start a conversation. However, sometimes a more direct question may be needed, such as I remember last time we spoke, you said...how is that going now? or Tell me a little bit more about...
It can be very difficult for people to bring up their own struggles without being prompted. Ask the question. Take an interest. Be a good listener.
Some more question prompts and tips on how to be a good listener.
Don't feel uncomfortable acknowledging the fact that they are going through a difficult time. Ignoring a person's struggle will cause more pain.
Overwhelmingly, people want validation. They want people to tell them that it's okay to be depressed, anxious or overwhelmed.
Statements such as, That sounds very difficult, No wonder you're feeling so overwhelmed and It's okay to feel that way - there is nothing wrong with that both acknowledge and validate another person's pain.
When someone is struggling, they want to know that it's okay for them to feel how they do, and this is the best support that you can give them.
Read more about this and see what others want to hear.
This is not about you. If you're looking for ways to support someone, it should be all about them. Whether writing a card, or having a conversation, be mindful of how frequently you talk about yourself, versus them.
I have been involved in many situations where the one offering support uses 'I' statements far too frequently. This means not discussing yourself, how the situation impacts you, what you can offer or what you have been through.
Your discussions should lean towards the one in need. What can I do for YOU? What do YOU need? YOU are so strong. YOU are doing a great job. I know this is challenging, but YOU will get there.
Use your own judgement as to whether it is appropriate to discuss your own pain as a way of understanding their struggles. Usually, a person who is struggling doesn't always feel that your pain is like their own, so it is better to focus on theirs, not yours.
Read more about this and see the difference between 'I' and 'You' statements.
Words like 'we', 'us' and 'together' go a long way. Loneliness is one of the most terrifying things that a person feels when struggling emotionally. There is usually so much silence surrounding them, making them feel misunderstood and alone. If you reach out and remind them that you are there for them, no matter what, you will be helping to lift that weight off their shoulders.
Statements like We can get through this together, We can do this and You've got us every step of the way will show them that you care and that they are not alone.
When someone we care about is suffering, our instinct is to want to fix their problems. But you'll find that this really isn't want they want. What they want is for you to listen, and as I said earlier, acknowledge and validate. Fight your inclination to lecture, give advice or offer solutions because, ironically, it doesn't always help. Usually it results in them feeling more invalidated and less understood. Of course, if someone is asking for you to help them, or they are asking for advice - please help them. But if they just want someone to listen, be that person for them.
\If you're writing a card, statements like I'll sit with you and listen, I wish I could help you, but I can listen to you if you need or I'm here if you just want to vent will show this intention.
Whilst you don't want to be negative, being overly positive isn't always helpful either. Be careful not to appear to invalidate by suggesting that what they're going through is a phase, or will pass. Sometimes we think being positive can help make someone feel calm about their situation, but you risk making them feel like you aren't taking their pain seriously.
Avoid telling them how great their life is by trying to show them that they have so much to be happy about. This is almost universally acknowledged as the worst way to try and support someone.
Instead, don't be afraid to say Yes, this is a really hard time for you or This sucks, is there anything I can do?.
Reaching out to someone shouldn't just be about that moment. It should be about letting that person know that you're there for them whenever they feel ready to talk. But it's up to you to communicate that. The best way is to continually check in with statements like I'm here for you, I'm thinking of you or You're always on my mind.
When people go through a trauma, or their illness or struggles are chronic, the support can dry up over time. If you really want to be there for someone, let them know that it is an ongoing offer of support. Statements such as, Whenever you feel like chatting - call me, I'm here for you night and day or Just letting you know, you can call me whenever. You can never check in too much; err on the side of being too supportive, rather than sporadically supportive.
Take an active and ongoing role of support by taking note of what does and doesn't help your loved one. This can change from day to day, but overtime you will gain a sense of what words help in particular situations. I approach it like collecting evidence, and overtime you start to feel more confident.