How to Support a Friend or Loved One in Need
At an early age, I lost my older brother, John, unexpectedly. He was on a dream trip, hiking the majestic Grand Canyon then tackling its tempestuous Colorado River when he went missing. That was in 1995, and ever since then, my family’s been a bit different and also missing—him.
I think it’s always been in my nature to empathize. But experiencing sibling loss at the impressionable age of 16 has sped up my growth in the caring department.
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What I learned about being there for a friend
Because of friends’ kindnesses, there are moments in my life that have stayed with me through the years. Things like a well-timed hug or someone taking the time to listen have given me comfort when life was especially hard. If you’ve gone through a few difficult chapters, my hope is that you’re fortunate enough to say the same.
Through every experience we can learn a little more about how to actively care. One of the ways I approach helping out a hurting friend is to think about what helped (or didn’t help) me. I think about how someone made me feel and what they said to lift me up. Then, I think about my friend—what they like, what they don’t like, their personality, the specific situation they’re facing, the things that make them smile. It’s a way to tailor your caring to your loved one’s needs. Because, as we know, each circumstance is unique and each person’s emotional process isn’t one-size-fits-all.
Through my story, I’d like to share those kindnesses that nurtured me…that’ll maybe guide you in reaching out to someone you love.
How to support your friend with words (and how not to)
If you think it’s hard to express condolences as an adult, just think how much more difficult it might be for teenagers (even though I personally think young people are pretty awesome at it). Being a kid, I received a variety of responses. One friend from youth group sweetly donated $5 to my family. Prompted by her mother, another girl called me on the phone with an awkward “I’m sorry” but leaving me with a memory of her brave kindness. Others gave me an emotional respite by trying to make me laugh.
And some kids I’d known for years stayed silent, never acknowledging what happened to my brother or our family. Even our youth pastor never reached out, which prompted my aunt to reach out to him with a little aunty-like lesson on caring. Down south, we like to call this church.
So I learned one thing early on: Say something. Say anything. Not reacting to a friend’s loss or life challenge is the worst thing you can do. It signals a lack of interest, even when that’s probably not the case.
It makes your friend feel even more alone.
Helpful tip: Even if you’re the most awkward person on the planet, anything you say is better than silence. A simple “I’m thinking of you” is beautiful and really, truly means so much.
After my brother died, I learned a lot about people. I was surprised by who I thought would reach out versus who actually did. Spoiler: Many times the ones who do or say something aren’t the ones you expect to do it. Which can actually be quite lovely.
Here are some supportive things to say to your friend:
- “I’m so sorry you’re going through this.”
- “What are some things you need right now?” (Then, try to follow up with meeting those needs.)
- “I love you.”
- “If you want to talk, I’ll be here to listen. Or I can just quietly sit with you. Whatever makes you comfortable.”
- “I’m praying things will get better for you.”
- “When you feel like it, I’d love to hear more about your [mom/dad/sister/brother/friend/child/etc.].”
- “You’re on my mind a lot, and I just want you to know I care.”
- “I can tell that you loved each other very much…and always will.” (This can be helpful when your friend is feeling regret or struggling over things left unsaid—or said.)
- “What was something special or unique about [insert name] that you’d like others to know?” (Saying their loved one’s name is so important because you’re including a person who’ll always be important to your friend.)
- “So many of us are thinking about you and keeping you close in our hearts.”
- “I hope you know your friendship means the world to me and I don’t ever want you to feel alone.”
- “No one should ever have to go through this…especially someone as wonderful as you.”
- “If you want to vent or need somebody to cry with, I will be that somebody.” (If you say this, make sure you’re prepared to follow through on your promise.”
- “I remember when [insert name]… (Sharing a fond memory of their loved one might just be the gift they need that day. Always pick a private time when they seem receptive, as even good memories can bring on hurt.)
- “Would you like my help with organizing the services or celebration of life?”
- “I don’t know exactly what to say, but I just want you to know I care about you and your family.”
Here are some things not to say:
- Anything that starts with “At least…” It may seem comforting to try to “soften” the situation, but all it does is minimize the hurt.
- Platitudes or offhand comments like “It was for the best.” or “They’re in a better place.” or “God doesn’t give you anything you can’t handle.” Also things like “You’re better off without him!” or “No one’s life is perfect.” or “At least you still have one sibling left.” Truth: 10 out of 10 random respondents said,“These never work.”
- “I know how you feel.” Even the best of the best empaths can’t 100% know how someone else feels. We can guess and react with love, but each person’s experience with loss, illness, family struggles, etc. is complex and unique.
- “You’ll get over it in no time!” Predictions or superficial statements tend to push people away instead of bringing them comfort.
- “When are you going to start dating again?” Suggesting people move on from grieving a partner before they’re ready or “replace” someone special is pretty much a no-no.
- “Let me know if you need anything!” This initially feels like you’re taking steps to care, but ultimately leaves the responsibility to your friend. Remember, the goal is to alleviate your friend’s pain, not give them more to think about. Instead say, “I’m running errands tomorrow. What can I take care of for you?”
- “Don’t cry.” I think people say this because they don’t want you to feel sad OR maybe they don’t want to feel uncomfortable themselves. Whatever it is, we need to let our friends cry. Why? Because it’s therapeutic. Because it’s an expression of love. When John was missing, my grandmother told me not to cry. Maybe she thought she was helping me, but as a person who was already shy about expressing myself, I just felt unsure how to act.
How to practice empathy
With John’s passing, my sensitive nature got even more sensitive. Being empathetic is a blessing and a curse, but I like to think of it as mostly a blessing. I like to help others, and if my tragedy leads to comforting someone through theirs, then my brother’s memory kind of lives on a little more. Tough times strengthen our capacity for empathy, so use what you know and keep growing.
Some tips for practicing empathy:
- Focus on the hurting person. That means talk more about what your friend is going through and less—much less—about your own struggles and issues. I say this as I’m literally writing a personal account of my own loss, but I say this as a caring peer giving informational tips. Know your audience and keep your own personal account in your head or journal or salacious memoir. (Unless you’re a professional therapist, then that’s a whole ’nother story. And honestly, professional therapists probably know better anyway.)
- Avoid comparing their loss to one of your losses or tough times that feels “less big” than what they’re going through at the moment. Example: “I totally know what it’s like to be depressed. I remember the time I was so bummed I couldn’t hang out with my boyfriend because he had to work.” Okay, kind of obvious, but these quotes really happen. Most people do this to show they can relate and some might do it for an emotional competition. So while the feelings of loss have similar threads, each loss is vastly different even on levels we won’t know. Sharing too much might come off as insensitive or give your friend too much information in an already overloaded emotional state.
- Don’t give unsolicited advice. Better yet—only give advice if asked…and tread lightly even then. Advice can be judge-y and not really helpful, but love can move mountains.
- Speaking of “judge-y,” don’t pass judgment on your friend or their situation. We never will fully know what others go through. Kick those sanctimonious thoughts to the curb.
- Listen. Let your friend talk and let out what they’re feeling. Your job is to mostly be quiet and let them have the floor.
- While listening, give your friend your full attention by eliminating distractions. Silence your phone, don’t respond to unnecessary calls or texts, keep steady eye contact and avoid dazing off into la-la land. No one likes pouring their heart out to someone staring into space.
- Ask open-ended questions. Things like, “What’s the hardest part of all of this?” or “How can I lighten your load?” or “What do you think your dad would tell you if he were here?”
- Don’t just listen for the “interesting story.” Your friend’s situation isn’t a made-for-TV movie. Your friend is a human being you love. Listen because you care…because they need someone to care.
How to support your friend with acts of kindness
One of the kindest things that my friends did was piling in the car with me to ride together to John’s gravesite. That alone is so nice, but this small entourage of teens sat patiently in my car: an old, rickety, un-air-conditioned, cigar-scented, sputtering and puttering ’84 Accord. In July. In Tennessee. This was their way of saying, “You are not alone.” And that has always stayed in my heart.
In the South, it’s quite common for cars to pull to the side of the road and passersby to salute a funeral procession out of respect. As my bouncy, little car worked to keep up with traffic, another car didn’t get that memo and tried to cut in front of me. My spirited friend, Lacey, yelled out, “You jerk!” Not that I’d typically condone calling someone a jerk, but in that moment, my friend showed her support for me.
Doing something thoughtful for a hurting friend doesn’t have to be a huge gesture. It doesn’t even have to cost a dime. It’s simply about showing up and letting your friend know you’re by their side. That’s what my friends did for me. And—Darla, Lacey, Amy and Dwayne—I’ve never forgotten that.
Here are some ways to show up for your friend:
- Call them before you go to the store and ask for their shopping list, then drop off those goodies at their door.
- Schedule a weekly coffee or walk around the neighborhood.
- Offer to help write thank-you notes after their loved one’s celebration of life.
- Invite them to a virtual happy hour at home. Pajamas mandatory!
- Write out a cherished memory you experienced with their loved one.
- Make a playdate with your sweet pup and let your friend soak up the hugs and kisses.
Losing a loved one is overwhelming in a bazillion ways. Losing my sibling changed my youthful perspective, left me feeling detached from my peers, caused me to question birth order (am I the oldest now?), opened my eyes to my parents’ vulnerability, instigated anger I didn’t know I had, and required me to perfect the right answer to “Do you have any siblings?” to name a few.
When thinking about what NOT to do, I like to use the ol’ read-the-room tactic. Pause, observe and adjust your actions according to the vibe and mood of your friend. Maybe don’t do what my grandma did after the post-burial church lunch: “Katherine, carry this ham.”
I was literally so dazed that afternoon from getting lost on the way back from the funeral to being forced to hug my cousins to now holding some random eight-pound ham.
Here are some things not to do when a friend is hurting:
- Don’t ask them to carry this ham. Translation: Don’t put more burden on their shoulders. The idea is to help take some of that burden away.
- Don’t leave them out of social events. They may not attend, but they will sure miss being asked. (Sidenote: While we were sitting in the church basement eating a rather gloomy lunch, one of my friends invited me to a cookout that night. I didn’t go, but I was warmed by her offer.)
- Don’t be over celebratory or braggy or any other version of insensitivity around your friend. Instead, create a safe and comfortable place for them to be themselves and process what’s happening.
Helpful Tip: What’s the difference between encouragement and support? Encouragement is, “Yay, you! You can do it!” Support is, “I love you. I’m going to help you do it.” Supporting a friend who’s hurting is love in action. Love, the verb.
How to help out your friend based on their unique situation
Food is a pretty definite way to give support to a hurting friend. It may sound like the obvious go-to (and it is), but you can customize a meal or dish to your friend’s taste. Literally.
My family received many wonderful homemade dishes from neighbors, friends and relatives. It was amazing to have all of these new recipes in the house, but even more amazing seeing what people did to help.
In a crisis, it’s hard to think about what to eat, when to shop and how you’ll ever make it to the store. But it’s important to keep your energy up, and the people who stopped by knew that was especially true for moms. Though my mom always provided for us, she never particularly loved cooking (I inherited that gift, too!). I’m not sure if anyone outside of our family knew that, but those casseroles and tuna surprises were a godsend. The fact that she didn’t have to prepare a bunch of meals was a thoughtful gift for a grieving mom.
So how do you decide how to help a friend? Guessing is one way. Reading articles like this one is even better. But if you really want to do the most for your friend, think about their situation and who they are as a person. It’s just like when you’re picking out the perfect gift: reaching out is the gift you’re giving, something they could use right this moment.
Things to consider:
- What has your friend done in the past to brighten your day?
- What would comfort your friend? Do they love animals? Is pizza their favorite meal? Are they a homebody or a social butterfly?
- Does your friend like spontaneity or are they a meticulous planner?
- Are they outgoing? Are they reserved? Maybe somewhere in the middle?
- What makes your friend laugh?
- What does your friend treasure? What are their hobbies and interests? Are they inspired by symbolism and meaning?
- What are your friend’s values or religious faith?
- What do they need right now, in their current situation?
- Do they have a serious personality or are they quite playful? Most people can be both.
- Who else would your gift help? Do their kids need a playmate? Would their mom like someone to visit her?
When you start to think through some of these specific questions, you’ll be surprised at how many ideas come to mind.
What to do if you get it wrong
While walking back from John’s gravesite, one of my cousins approached me to apologize for missing the church service. Earlier, she had dropped her brother off at the airport and explained that she wanted to send him off because “I’m not going to see him for a long time.” This was literally minutes after burying my brother. Um, yeah, Cuz, I won’t be seeing my brother for a long time, too.
Back then, I felt flabbergasted, but as the years have passed, I honestly smile at the blunder. (And, Cousin, if you’re reading, I love you!) Why? Because it’s something we humans do. People are going to blurt out awkward, inappropriate things when they’re nervous and reaching for the right thing to say. It happens all the time. Because we’ve all been there—me included—I always try to extend grace to those who might “mess up” at first. This is offering empathy to those who are trying to offer it to us.
If you feel like you’ve royally screwed up, first of all, remember: You really haven’t. You said or did something to acknowledge and affirm your friend. That, in itself, is huge.
So what should you do if you’ve run into a little caring snafu or said something untoward? Apologize. Say something like:
- “I’m so sorry. That came out wrong. What I meant was…” (Note: If rambling on and on about what you meant will get you into even more trouble, just say something like, “I just care about you and want you to know you’re not alone.”)
- “I’m such a dummy. That’s not what I meant. Please forgive me.”
- “I apologize. I’m not very good at knowing what to do, but I’m really good at knowing I care about you.”
- “I didn’t mean to say that. Let’s rewind: I love you. I’m here for you. I never want you to feel like you’re alone.”
- “Leave it to me to say something stupid. Please ignore that. I didn’t mean it. You really, truly mean so much to me.”
- “Ugh. I’m going to stop talking now. How about you talk and I’ll just listen.”
Because John died when I was 16 and I’m now a long, long way from teen-dom, I’ve had a lot of time to ponder what it means to care. You may be new at it or just needing some fresh ideas. However you use this article, I hope you use it with love. I hope someone’s day is brighter just because you cared.
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