5 Ways To Help A Struggling Friend (Published in The Mighty)

With the year coming to an end, it seems this has been a particularly rough one for many. So many friends and family have suffered a loss, received devastating health news or have endured heartache. Perhaps it’s the unprecedented political climate, or perhaps it’s just a reminder that life is fragile. There’s no time like the present to help each other through, but asking for help is often hard. Figuring out how to help can be equally as tricky.

Here are five ways to help a friend in need:

1. Just Listen. Telling your friend  her troubles remind you of “the-time-when” after she finally opens up to you, is not always helpful. I’m willing to bet the last thing she wants to hear is a 180 to the time when your cousin’s brother’s father-in-law had heart trouble. Try to validate her feelings without digging deep into your past for unhelpful parallels. Chances are, all she needs is a listening ear and shoulder to lean on.

2. This Is Not About You. Several years ago my dad suffered complications from a back surgery, and I flew home unexpectedly. I told my closest friends, who were in constant contact with me throughout my difficult trip and for weeks upon my return. When an acquaintance found out weeks later, she kept pressing me to explain why I didn’t call her. I was dumbfounded and tried to deflect. Sometimes we’re just too overwhelmed and exhausted to field endless questions from those who are not in our inner circle. And while this sounds harsh, it’s a reality of life. Piling on the guilt and demanding explanations about why she didn’t call you only reinforces why she didn’t call you in the first place.

3. Offer to Help. In her talk, “Just Show Up,” Sheryl Sandberg explains that asking a friend what you can do to help puts the onus on an already burdened person. Instead, she recommends just showing up, which I imagine means different things to different people, depending on the situation. I still think asking your friend how you can help is OK, but be ready to show up and actually do something. A check-in call, a card, a treat, a surprise in her mailbox, an offer to pick up the kids or make dinner – anything that makes sense in your particular relationship and lets your friend know you care, is a considerate gesture.

4. Don’t Add to Her Plate. We all have busy and full lives, but there’s a way to share, rely upon and support each other without becoming a drain. If your friend is going through a rough time, choose someone else to dump your sorrows on. Sure, she still wants to be part of your life, and she may be hurt if you withhold information even for the most non-selfish reasons, but consider your timing and tread lightly.

5. Don’t Ask Invasive Medical Questions Unless Your Friend Shares. When my daughter suffered a concussion, I fielded a constant barrage of invasive questions: Have you thought of this? Have you considered that? I wanted to scream. People with absolutely no relevant medical training seemed to suddenly have input on cutting-edge concussion treatments. (And yes, we saw every specialist available and got through it.) Please, for the love of God, hold your tongue. You’re not a doctor, and if you are, you’re not that kind of doctor, and if you are, please note that no one made an appointment with you for a consult.

Going through a rough time is hard enough without having to worry about what others think. My girlfriends and I try to live in a BS-free zone, but sometimes life gets in the way. I treasure and rely on our no-shame policy and our lack of who-owes-what-to-whom accounting. Stepping outside ourselves with empathy helps us to help others. The key to helping is to listen and offer the help needed. It’s not about you, but in the end, it makes your life a whole lot easier and more fulfilling.


2 Replies to “5 Ways To Help A Struggling Friend (Published in The Mighty)”

  1. Erris, your words come from the heart and are welcome food for my own mind that continues to be overrun by so much that really doesn’t matter. As hard as it might be for me (oh no “it’s not about me), next time I’ll pause and think a bit harder before I engage my mouth (there I go again).

    How about this girl, you are so right.

  2. I have learned and also taught my students and future social work practitioners that one of the most important tools in our professional kit is to “Just listen…” Everything else will follow. I am impressed that ‘listening’ was your first suggestion to a friend in need.

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