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There are few things in life as challenging as watching someone you care about go through a difficult time. You may feel powerless to help, confused about what you can and should do, and even guilty for your own happiness or well-being at the moment.
As a mental health professional, I work with clients often at the worst times of their lives. Here are some Do’s and Don’ts (or rather some Don’ts and Do’s) I have found helpful in both my professional and personal life while helping others through a difficult time.
- Downplay how she feels by trying to put a positive spin on her situation. Don’t say things like “Well at least…” or “It could be worse…” This undermines how she feels and gives your friend the impression that she should not feel sad. Do we tell happy people not to feel happy because someone has it better? No. So why do we do it when others are upset?
- Make it about you. Your friend Susie found out she has cancer. You proceed to tell her about your experience with pneumonia last year and everything you went through. Helpful right? Maybe not. Unless you have specific advice that directly applies to your friend (such as “make sure you ask for help when you need it”), it is not helpful for your friend to hear all about you. Now the conversation is focused on you, instead of on your friend who needs support right now.
- Treat her differently. Do not walk on eggshells around your friend. This will make both of you feel uncomfortable. Of course be sensitive to her situation, but do not be afraid to joke around, gossip, or talk about a new movie you want to see. A little normal may be exactly what she needs at the moment.
So now that we have talked about all the things we shouldn’t do, what can we do to be supportive?
- Let your friend know you are there for her. This can be as simple as asking “What can I do to help?” Be aware that some people may not ask for help, whether it is out of pride or not wanting to be a burden to others. It may be helpful to offer to do something concrete for your friend, such as saying “I would love to make some freezer meals for you so that you do not have to cook. What would you like to eat?”
And in my mind the most important do:
- Listen. Listen, listen, listen. What your friend needs most is compassion and support. She may not need advice or help, but she will need someone to talk to. Let her decide when she is ready to talk, but when she is, let her know you are there.