Recently I have had 2 different people in my life going through very trying times as their spouses have had to deal with health problems. One is a family member and the other a mom friend from my kid’s school. Obviously, my relationship to each of them is completely different. Nonetheless, I want to reach out and comfort both of them in some way.
It got me to thinking about just how do you comfort someone going through a tough time?
Despite best intentions, it isn’t always easy to comfort someone. And for some of us, supporting people going through a difficult time can be confusing or awkward, no matter how much we want to be present for them.
Below are some suggestions that might be helpful. Not all of these will apply to every situation, so use them only if they feel appropriate. And, I believe there will be some differences as well as similarities based on the level of your relationship with the person going through a crisis, but mostly similarities.
(1) Make contact. When you find out that someone you know is going through a crisis and you want to support them, make contact. Call, email, offer to visit. People in crisis often feel alone and alienated and appreciate when others reach out to them.
(2) Listen to the story. At the beginning stages of a crisis, everyone needs to tell their story in their own time. Telling the story is one of the cornerstones of psychological treatment for trauma. The job of the friend is to listen. To get the conversation started you might say any of the following: “Would you like to tell me what happened?” “You must be so angry!” “I’m so sorry to hear this.” “How are you feeling?”
(3) Be there emotionally. Think of yourself as a vessel filled with love and support that you are offering out. Recognize any feelings that you might have about the situation and try to not have them interfere with your ability to show up for your friend. Keep your personal stories to yourself, along with any judgments or criticisms you might have.
You probably don’t know how your friend feels. Be careful about saying, “I know how you feel.” When people are reeling from their own feelings, they think that you can’t possibly understand their experience unless you have actually been there.
(4) Let your friend cry. Try to be with the emotions without stifling them. Your friend will eventually stop crying. A person in crisis may not be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel when the event first happens. Hold your friend’s hand, look them in the eye, and say, “You will get through this,” or, “This too shall pass.” They may not believe you at the time, but it will be helpful to hear.
(5) Don’t push. People in crisis can feel completely out of control and can benefit from making choices. Rather than insisting on a course of action, offer your friend some options to select from. Even simple ones matter.
(6) Offer practical help. Suggest tasks you might take on such as making calls, taking or picking up the kids from school, buying groceries, or doing errands. Be observant to see what is needed, and ask if you can assist.
(7) Bring food or even spearhead a sign up online and send it to other friends of your friend. That way they have a steady flow of meals coming in over a certain time frame instead of all at once! Eating is one of the first things to go in a crisis (along with sleep). Have nourishing food available so that your friend is more likely to continue eating regular meals.
(8) Know that emotion comes in waves. There are no rules about how people should react to crises. Your friend may feel numb, intensely emotional, or anywhere in between. Even all in one day! All reactions are valid and understandable, even laughter. Emotions often appear in waves – they come and go. Be there as a support no matter what your friend is feeling.
(9) Be patient. Your friend may need to tell the story many times or may still be emotional weeks after you would have begun to move on. Respect that everyone’s process is unique. However, if, after giving it plenty of time, you think your friend is stuck in the trauma, you might gently ask, “How do you see yourself getting through this?”
(10) Encourage basic functioning. In the first few days of a crisis, even the most minimal functioning may seem impossible. Be very gentle in encouraging your friend to take a shower, get dressed, eat regular meals, and take a short walk. If you know of self-care activities your friend enjoys, such as running, yoga, or going to the gym, suggest these as well, being careful not to sound pushy.
(11) Check in over time. Often, at the beginning of a crisis, many people are available to help and support. Over time, people tend to forget and return to the rhythm of their daily lives. Keep your friend in the forefront of your mind, and check in in the weeks or months ahead. Even just sending a comforting hand written card or note is a great way to check in and let them know you are thinking of them.
Showing up with a loving, open heart is by far the best medicine.
Remember that a crisis is a difficult time for everyone and often handled differently from person to person.
How have you helped a friend in crisis? Any suggestions you would add? I’d love to hear about your experiences.