I learned a few hours ago that a friend's dad and step-mom had a life-threatening motorcycle accident.

I enquired about his state through SMS (I'm in another country right now) as I think I would have screwed up over the phone (and I didn't mean to be overwhelming for him either).

I think I managed fine, but it's hard to gauge... I'm also naturally more solution-oriented so emotional support isn't my strong suit...

How should one enquire and be 'emotionally supportive' in this kind of situation ?

I'm looking for the medium (phone call, SMS, IRL), what to say (point out the positive aspects, ask the person how she feels, etc.), and when to say it (right when I know it, a few hours after, days). You don't have to apply it to my situation, feel free to give general advice.


3 Answers 3


Generally I would wait until I'm sure they're not overwhelmed by the situation - needing to see the doctor, etc. This really depends on the nature of the "bad news" and your intention, and your overall closeness to him/her.

If it is an emergency, you might want to call briefly immediately after hearing the news.

State that everything will be alright, and that you will always be there if he/she needs help.

If you do not intend (or can't afford) to be that friend who rushed to the hospital, calming him/her down, and staying up with until morning, wait until at least 2-3 hours after the incident (not after hearing the news).

If it is not an emergency, then give a text confirming the news.

Hey dude, I heard your mother is ill?

This is important to avoid misunderstanding if you misheard the news.

Then continue asking about their condition

How bad was it?

Optionally you could inquire more (how that happened), but it is up to you.

Ensure them that everything will be alright (or similar tone)

I'm sure everything will be alright.

Man, I know this is tough for you, but be strong, okay?

Then proceed to let them know that you will always be available for them.

Hey, you can always talk to me, 'kay?

Optionally, you could offer a help. Financial help will greatly reduce their stress and ease their mind. I've seen sometimes people do this as the very first thing to reduce their stress.

Is there anything I can do for you?

Do you need anything?

If you need anything, anything ... talk to me.


Confirm > Ask about their condition > Reassure > Let them know you're available

Note: If he is (only) an acquaintance, you might want to modify the last line a bit or completely omit it.

As for the medium, a call is always better, especially for close friends. Hearing familiar voice will greatly help them through the difficult times. But be prepared to get a long call (but that's a friend for, right?).

Alternatively, text is better handled if you send it the moment you hear the news - it can wait until they have calmed down. But arguably, it may cause them to miss the text altogether because of the chaos. So generally, I advise sending text after several hours has passed from the time of the incident.

Lastly, if you cannot be physically be with them (in another state or country), any method is fine, even Facebook message. The most important thing is show your support to them through the hard times.


Things like being in a life-threatening accident, getting a diagnosis of a severe disease, losing a pregnancy, being fired, or having a relationship end look like point instances, but they're not. They are more of a process than an event. Thus your reaction and support is not a single instant (I heard about X, that's a shame, hope you feel happier soon) but instead an ongoing activity.

That might seem like a piece of bad news, but it's actually good news because it means you don't have to be perfect on your single interaction with the bad-news-learning person. You will have lots of chances.

Your instinct not to call was good. Getting 10 or 20 calls at once from people who "just heard and want to see how you're doing" can be exhausting. Texting, emailing, or something else asynchronous is a good choice. You want to emphasize that you care about them and want to help them. You can do the old "if there's anything at all I can do, just ask" - but when you're going through something like that it can be difficult to know what you need. You can certainly tell them that you would love to call, and ask when would be a good time. When I was very ill I asked people to send me "UDP" emails - full of news and information but with no expectation that I need to reply.

So especially when you're far away and can't just show up, keep contacting your friend. Ask "how are you doing?". If you were given the details of the bad news at one point, you can ask if there has been any change, if someone's condition has improved, if the thrown-out spouse has found a place to live, how the job search is going, and so on. Always ask how your own personal friend is doing before asking how their parent/sister/spouse is doing. It can be very hard to constantly answer how [the sick/wounded/fired/dumped/arrested person] is and nobody ever ask after you.

If you want to send a card or flowers, make sure you get it right. "Get Well Soon" to someone with a stage IV cancer diagnosis who most likely will not get well is just painful. Flowers have all sorts of meanings most people have forgotten, but one I recall is that sending a potted plant instead of cut flowers symbolizes that your support will be longlasting not just transient. That said, I know a spouse of a cancer patient who was angered by potted plants because they added more things to his todo list that now he was supposed to keep plants watered and healthy on top of everything else.

One thing that may be practical to suggest if this is going to be a long lasting event is to be an "information captain" - your friend can deliver updates to you, and you will spread them out to a larger group of mutual friends. Those people can ask questions of you, to reduce the drain on your friend's energy.


This answer is for people like you or me who don't really do this kind of thing intuitively very well and are more "solution-oriented" as you call it...

How should one enquire and be 'emotionally supportive' in this kind of situation ?

If you are talking on the phone or face-to-face, I would try to keep your side of the conversation short. It is not about the actual words, but about your sincerety. For example, when you are in the same office room and they tell you that their parent just died three days ago, there is very little you can really say. Obviously they are getting along, or they would not be here. No, you can't do much to help, in practical terms, anyways. But you can give them a very short and heartfelt condolence, with some body language (i.e., turning towards them, giving them your fullest attention, making a deliberate pause after whatever you said to give them a way to say something, and so on).

Generally, I try to not start to tell similar stories (i.e., no "oh, I remember how it was when my parent died 2 years ago"), and really skip factual stuff. If you know them well, then a "how are you holding together" maybe, but that would be about it.

If they start talking, then of course give them as much space as they need. If they shut down, then don't try to force them to talk.

I'm looking for the medium (phone call, SMS, IRL),

I'd pick SMS/mail/messenger or IRL depending on whether IRL is possible; phone call last. Unless they are very close (close friend/family), then phone call instead of SMS etc.

what to say (point out the positive aspects, ask the person how she feels, etc.),

I'd skip pointing out positive aspects. Unless you really know what you are doing, such things might drive someone who is borderline overwhelmed over the brink as much as help them. Asking them how they feel... well... I'd skip that as well, it would feel hollow to me ("my parent just died, how do you think I feel?").

If the situation is still "hot", tell them some kind of condolence, and if they don't particularly respond, leave it at that. What that is depends a lot on your relationship... between close friends, a "dang, that sucks" might be appropriate; not so much between coworkers etc.

and when to say it (right when I know it, a few hours after, days).

If you have SMS/mail/messenger, then right away. They will read/respond when they're ready.

If you have to call them or walk up to them, then maybe rather give it a day. Obviously, if you suspect that they actually need practical help, then don't hesitate.

Be sure to follow-up after a few more days, a week, 2 weeks; just a small check. And try to find out from their reactions if they need more than they let on. If so, then don't bother asking them if they need help, but offer help instead. Not "let me know if I can do anything" but "if you like, I'll hop into the car right now and come over", if that makes sense.

It's not so much what you say, but that you are present (be it real or virtual).

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.