We’ve all found ourselves in that uncomfortable and awkward place of wanting to support a friend who is suffering. It’s not an easy place to be. We want to help but we don’t always know how. More important than anything is just to show up and listen. Be there. Let your friend know that you care and that you want to help.
I love David Brooks’ piece in the New York Times about a family who, after suffering two terrible tragedies and the aftermath, shared some of the wisdom they had gained through the process. He writes, “We have a tendency, especially in an achievement-oriented culture, to want to solve problems and repair brokenness — to propose, plan, fix, interpret, explain and solve. But what seems to be needed here is the art of presence — to perform tasks without trying to control or alter the elemental situation. Allow nature to take its course. Grant the sufferers the dignity of their own process. Let them define meaning. Sit simply through moments of pain and uncomfortable darkness. Be practical, mundane, simple and direct.” In my opinion, he nails it.
DOs and DON’Ts OF HELPING A FRIEND IN CRISIS
- Be there
Never underestimate the power of just being there. The presence of a friend is so comforting, whether it’s a shoulder to cry on, a reassuring hug, a laugh or just companionship. Some people assume that a person grieving wants to be alone. My experience is that grief can be isolating, so those friends who have the courage to show up in the hard times become even more important.
- Don’t make comparisons
It’s human nature to want to relate to someone by sharing your own similar experience, but this should not be one of those times. Keep the focus on your friend and the loss he or she is facing. Several people recounted stories from well-intentioned friends or acquaintances with misguided attempts at empathy: “I know just how you feel. My cat died last month.” Ouch. Whether a friend is mourning the loss of a spouse, parent, or child, or even pet, hearing “I’m sorry” and “I’m thinking about you” will be better received than having to listen to how it compares to someone else’s loss. It’s about your friend, not you.
- Offer concrete help, not vague offers
“Just let me know what I can do” is NOT helpful. A grieving person does not need to add logistical coordinator to the To Do list. Tactical help is so much better than empty offers. Walk the dog. Bring groceries. Arrange a carpool. Find a point person who can coordinate meals to avoid lasagne overload. See what needs to be done and make it happen.
- Think of grief as a marathon, not a sprint
In the early days following a loss, the village rallies (hopefully). There is an outpouring of love and sympathy. In time though, the village moves on to the next crisis. The calls and cards diminish. Unfortunately, this is the time when your friend most needs support. The numbness is probably starting to wear off and the real work of grieving begins. Checking in periodically, sharing memories about the deceased, and letting your friend reminisce and process are all ways you can be helpful. As time passed, it meant so much to me when a friend would reference my mom casually in conversation or ask me something about her.
- No judgement
Or, as my friends like to say, “no judgies.” Have compassion and try to remember that everyone grieves differently. Try to be patient with a friend who is struggling, acting differently, possibly being difficult. Yes, you want your old friend back, and the person grieving also probably wishes things were back to normal. But that takes time.
In an April 2013 LA Times, Susan Silk and Barry Goldman published an op-ed piece titled “How Not to Say the Wrong Thing” where the authors describe their Ring Theory. In a nutshell, it’s not about you. It’s about your friend in a time of need. They write, “When you are talking to a person in a ring smaller than yours, someone closer to the center of the crisis, the goal is to help. Listening is often more helpful than talking. But if you’re going to open your mouth, ask yourself if what you are about to say is likely to provide comfort and support. If it isn’t, don’t say it. Don’t, for example, give advice. People who are suffering from trauma don’t need advice. They need comfort and support. So say, “I’m sorry” or “This must really be hard for you” or “Can I bring you a pot roast?” Don’t say, “You should hear what happened to me” or “Here’s what I would do if I were you.” And don’t say, “This is really bringing me down.
In The Art of Comforting, Val Walker writes about how to help people in a time of need. She outlines the top attributes of comforting people: Being present and Listening, Empathy, Genuine, Respectful, Patient, Caring, Reliable, Clear, Warm, Accepting, Hopeful, Humble, Supportive/Validating, Appreciative, Generous, Gentle, Adaptable, Wise/Experienced, Strong. This list could be overwhelming and might make someone feel inadequate, or worse, paralyzed. You don’t have to be all of these things to be helpful. Everyone has strengths and unique qualities, gifts that can be so valuable to a friend in a time of need. Don’t let fear stop you. Just show up and sit and listen.