My own life has finally calmed down after a challenging few months. During that time, I was blessed to have good friends I could reach out to when I felt overwhelmed with our decision to foster a child. Some friends could offer tangible advice based on their family’s own personal experiences. Others knew how to simply listen and provide prayers.
Of course, not everyone knows how to walk beside someone undergoing a trying situation. I know I myself have been guilty of dismissing someone’s feelings, offering advice rather that a listening ear, or passing judgement on a situation I only partially understood. Thankfully, with age has come the realization that I don’t know everything, and that there are better ways to be a friend to someone who is hurting. Especially as of late when it seems several of my friends have been given enormous crosses I cannot fathom. I am trying to be the friend they need right now and set aside all judgement, opinions, and personal feelings about their situation. So here are a few things I’m working on that I’ve picked up from personal experience (both as a suffering person and as someone supporting a suffering person). I am not claiming expertise! so please leave your advice in the comments below.
This is easier said than done, but is by far the most important thing. Just listen. Don’t wait for a pause in the conversation to jump in; just let there be a pause. Keep your responses short: “That sounds tough.” “I can’t imagine what you’re going through.” “I’m sorry.” Chances are the person just needs to unload their feelings. She’s not looking for answers, she just need someone to hear what she’s saying. Give her your undivided attention and allow her the freedom to speak about whatever is weighing her down.
Validate your friend’s feelings, even when you don’t understand them.
It doesn’t matter if you agree with your friend’s feelings or not, you don’t get to say she’s over-reacting, or being irrational. You don’t get to say she shouldn’t feel that way. If you’re concerned that your friend is a danger to herself or her family, you can tell her to seek professional help. “You sound really upset/ depressed. Have you considered talking to a therapist about this?” The point is, even if you’ve gone through the exact same situation, you can’t expect your friend to react/ behave in the exact same way. All you can do is help her accept and work through her feelings so she can move forward towards a solution and/ or acceptance. Dismissing her feelings will probably make her feel like you don’t truly understand or care about what she’s going through.
No: “Don’t be sad about the past! You can’t change anything! Focus on the future! Get over it.”
Yes: “You feel upset about what happened in the past. That makes sense. You need time to grieve what happened before you can more forward.”
(For the record, the ‘No’ reaction is my default and I need to work very hard to allow my friends to work through how they feel. The ‘Yes’ responses don’t come easy for me so I understand the difficulty if you’re the offer advice / cheerleader type.)
Don’t immediately offer advice.
Even when she asks for it, at least in the beginning. “What do you think you should do?” And listen to her talk through her options. This is still hard for me. I always want to help and find solutions so I right away offer them. I often have strong feelings on the best course of action. But I’m working on holding off. (My friends can attest to my failure rate.) Often your friend knows what she needs to do and will arrive at the correct course of action without any input on your part. If you are a close friend, she may ask you for advice or suggestions. You can give some, however, don’t get upset if she chooses not to follow it. Once her mind is made up, try to support her unless doing so compromises your beliefs or is dangerous to herself or her family.
Don’t expect her to get over anything quickly.
Chances are, whatever she’s going through is not going to be resolved quickly. There might be grief, regret, or anger that persists for a long time, even once the initial problem seems to be over. Long after you think she might be doing better, check in with her ( three months, six, months, or longer) and let her know its okay to admit to you if she’s still struggling. Maybe she’ll be fine, and you can celebrate that! But be prepared to support her in the long haul too.
Don’t try to “relate”.
Unless you have gone through the exact same thing, like, exactly. the. same. thing. don’t try to compare your experience to her experience. And even if you did go through the same thing, it doesn’t mean she will process the experience the same way. Things may be the complete opposite for her, and that’s okay! because it’s not about you. If you can’t untangle your feelings from your friend’s situation due to your own experiences, be honest with your friend and point her towards another companion who can listen without the baggage getting in the way.
Don’t gossip about her or break confidence.
Keep what shared with you in confidence, even if some asks what’s going on “out of concern”. Trust that if she wants that person to know, she will tell them herself. I am guilty of blathering on about someone’s private business with someone else assuming they know what I’m talking about. Check yourself before you wreck yourself- and your friendship!!
Don’t be offended if she doesn’t want to confide in you.
Remember, it’s not about you. She’s not required to share information with anyone. She has a good reason for turning to the people she is turning to instead of you. If you’re afraid she’s not getting any support and struggling in solitude (to maybe “spare” people) you can certainly offer help, but you can’t force her to take it. Occasionally check in with her and remind her you’re always there to listen, but then back off and let other closer friends and family step in.
It goes without saying that you should pray for your friend. Let her know you’re praying and ask for specific intentions and then follow up on them. If she seems stressed in the moment ask to pray with her right then and there if she wants. Her faith may be struggling. I know first hand how much the prayers of others will sustain you during dark times. If you can do nothing else- pray, and know that it’s worth so much.
You might not be able to help if your own life is a mess and that’s okay.
And your friend should understand that. I was completely unavailable to my friends while fostering Todd. I tried to keep up with rosary and prayer intentions but I didn’t have anything extra to offer. Be a supportive shoulder when you can, but keep your priorities in order; your family needs to come first.
So those are my thoughts on helping a friend who is carrying a heavy cross. Let me know your tips below!
Great advice! I think the ‘Don’t relate’ part is so important. Everyone wants to jump in with their own tale of woe, but 1.) no one knows what another is going through and 2.) it has the effect of dismissing someone else’s pain. It is basically comes across as, “Oh you think you have it bad? Listen to this…”
Thank you for posting this. As much as many people in the world love one another and want to be good friends, some of them don’t know how to support suffering friends, or don’t realize what they could do that would be more helpful. I especially like your recommendation that we listen, and also your repeating that it’s not about us, it’s about the friend and her choices and how she’s going through her (his) rough spot. I’ve also been on both sides, and I so appreciate a friend who lets it be about me when I turn to her for help.
Because I’m wired to be rather others-oriented, it’s not easy for me to let friends know when I cannot be there for them, so thank you also for mentioning that you had to and were able to do that when you couldn’t be there for your friends. Just helps to know that someone else out there knew herself, knew her boundaries, and honored both. Beautiful, true, *good*.
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