We’ve all been there (or you will be). A friend let’s you into the inner circle of her horrible news. Her husband has cancer, or she went into preterm labor. Maybe you hear it from a mutual friend — a family member has passed away or she had another miscarriage.
Whatever it may be, your heart clenches. You can’t imagine what the pain is like, or you can, but either way, you know it is the type that makes it hard to get up in the morning. There are no ways to be a perfect friend in these situations, but there are many ways to be a good one. Here are a few that definitely aren’t helpful to a friend in crisis:
1. Do nothing.
OK, I know this one is obvious, but when someone is in crisis, it is easy to feel overwhelmed. Knowing what to do to help can feel difficult. Or possibly, we see all the help they are already receiving and just sit back.
Caring from afar might be appropriate when you are not in a place emotionally to help or if you don’t know the person. As a friend though, there is always something you can do, even if it’s just to say, “I’m struggling too, but I see you.”
2. Ask them, ‘How can I help?’
I know, I know. We all do this, especially me. It was a steep learning curve for me when my friend’s husband was dying of cancer, and she repeatedly said this wasn’t helpful. I felt defensive because what I meant when I said it was “I don’t know how to help, but I want to.”
Many people say “How can I help?” because they just don’t know what else to say. They don’t have any intention of helping, but they truly want to communicate how badly they feel. Instead of an insincere offer to help just be honest and say you are thinking of them.
Others, like me, say it sincerely, but without recognizing the added stress it places on the person receiving help. Not only are they humbling themselves to accept help, but they have to try and come up with what that help is. Rarely do people in crisis know what they need in that moment. If you really don’t know what to offer, say so.
The best offers of help are the most specific. Don’t ask if you can bring a meal, but when you can drop it off. Ask which day would be the most helpful to pick up her kids or take her dog to the groomer.
3. Give unsolicited advice.
When families are faced with a new diagnosis such as cancer, or with a loss, they are inundated not only with information from doctors and medical professionals, but also their own research. On top of those, many people begin sharing their advice, stories, and cures.
While there is a time and place for this, it needs to stem from the receiver. If they ask for advice on Facebook, go for it. If you or someone you know has had a similar experience, let them know that information is available. The last thing they need is an avalanche of unsolicited thoughts and information on what they should do (even if it is well-meaning).
People in crisis who are grieving the loss of love, health, and life don’t need it to be fixed. The pain is something that cannot be taken away from them. They have to walk through it themselves. Support them in ways that let them know you are there without judgment. They may need dinner. Sometimes they just need space, room to process and grieve. Give them permission to feel what they are feeling rather than how society dictates they should.
4. Cry on their shoulder — about their crisis.
When her husband was sick, my friend posted a diagram that I will never forget. It’s called the Ring Theory by Susan Silk. You draw concentric circles with the sick person in the middle. The idea is that everybody needs to vent and grieve, but you do outwardly. The rule is “comfort in, dump out.”
This was a difficult adjustment for me because she was a friend I was accustomed to leaning on. Knowing she was already carrying the weight of her whole family’s pain reminded me that she didn’t have the energy to support me, nor should she. I found a friend outside the situation, and she became my shoulder to cry on as I processed my feelings.
5. Tell them how they should be feeling.
It’s tempting to want to offer support by pointing out the positives, but “at least”s are never helpful.
“At least he didn’t die.”
“At least you have a healthy baby now.”
“At least you had time together.”
“At least it was instant and he didn’t suffer.”
There are positives and negatives to every situation, and the people most aware of them are the ones experiencing it. Just because you see a positive in something doesn’t mean they will. It belittles their grief to tell them what was and wasn’t a loss.
We all have losses, and we all feel pain. The least helpful thing that people can do is to minimize that pain or dramatize it. When we think that person should be having a good day, they may be having a terrible day. Likewise, when we get caught up in how horrible the situation is, people also feel like they need permission to have a good day.
Grief is complex, and complicated, and messy. We are taught that it’s a five-step process, but what nobody talks about is how many times you repeat those steps or that it can happen all in one day.
Everyone grieves differently, some days will be good, others bad. Often the person grieving doesn’t even know which. Listening to their feelings without offering judgment is key. Give them a free pass to cancel on the bad days, celebrate with them on the good.
Watching my friend slowly have to say goodbye to her husband over five years of cancer is one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. As a nurse in the NICU, I see it all the time: People just struggling to hold it all together. Struggling with getting through day-to-day tasks and trying to figure out when, and how, they are allowed to lose it.
I’ve also seen friends and families carried by incredible teams of support. We weren’t meant to do this life thing alone. We have an immense opportunity to be there for our friends in crisis. Our friendships may look different, and there is always some trial and error, but everybody benefits when we can be honest and vulnerable.
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