When it comes to being a friend, there is no need for a job description. We know what is expected of us: loyalty, honesty, care and fun, to name a few. But when a friend is going through a difficult time, we might find ourselves asking for some clear instructions. We often wonder whether we are doing too little or if we are overstepping our boundaries. Does she want us to express our sympathy or does she want us to leave her alone? Whether it’s the loss of a loved one, a medical situation, family problems or a break-up, it hurts to see that someone you care about is hurting.
We spoke to Irene S. Levine, professor of psychiatry at New York University School of Medicine and founder of The Friendship Blog, about the dos and don’ts of helping a friend who is going through a difficult time.
Do accept that you cannot fix everything
An important thing to remember is that, as much as you want to help, many things are out of your control. Sometimes you don’t have the means to help, or even the best advice to offer. Do the best that you can to help your friend in whatever situation she is in, even if it means just offering your support. This is something that Katie*, a student from Northeastern University, realized.
“It’s obviously difficult to see someone you care about go through such hard times, and it’s been equally as hard – if not harder – for me to come to terms with the fact that I’m not in a position to solve their problems on my own,” says Katie. “The best thing for both me and my friend is to just let them know that you’re there for them no matter what and will be a support system for whatever they’re going through.”
Do let her know that you will be there for her
One of the main concerns about approaching a friend who is dealing with a difficult situation is how to act around her. What do you say? First, take cues from your friend, says Levine. Offer to speak to her about the situation. If she does not want to open up, respect her decision but let her know that you will be there for her. Levine suggests offering help such as going shopping or returning library books for her, or sending a card expressing your sympathy.
“Personally, I’m pretty independent when I’m dealing with stuff. I tend to bottle up and resist help,” says Amanda, a student at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, who recently lost a loved one. “But the most helpful thing for me is just knowing that there are people there I can call on if I need to. Say, to pick me up from the hospital because I’m crying too hard to drive or to make sure I have dinner at home because I’m too stressed to cook.”
Do listen but don’t judge
We all have opinions but even if the advice we offer comes from a good place, it might not be what they need to hear. Focus on lending your ear because even if a friend asks for your advice, they mostly just want to get their feelings off their chest.
“It’s more important to listen than it is to talk,” says Levine. “Don’t claim to know how they are feeling because you probably don’t.” Beware of dominating the conversation with stories about your own life. Even though these stories might be brought up with the intention of relating to your friend, be careful not to make the conversation about you. Focus on your friend and what she is going through.
Don’t downplay the situation
It might seem helpful to encourage your friend to look on the bright side, but doing this might not help at all. According to Helpguide.org, you should avoid saying something like “look what you have to be thankful for” or “it could be worse.” Comments like these can come off as invalidating their feelings. Instead, remind them that they are human and are allowed to feel whatever they are feeling.
Don’t treat her too differently
You might be scared to say the wrong thing or do something that will make your friend feel worse, but sometimes walking on eggshells does not help the person.
Amanda from Kwantlen says that engaging in normal conversations keeps things from getting awkward. “Being treated like you’re fragile when you are, in fact, fragile, really doesn’t help matters at all. Don’t be afraid to joke around a bit, talk about the latest episode of your favorite TV show or the gossip on campus or whatever. Sometimes all we need is a bit of normal in the midst of all the crazy.”
Do let her know that she’s not burdening you
Sometimes a friend will push you away, believing they have your best interest in mind. Reassure them that you want to help, says Levine. Encourage them to talk to you and let them know that they aren’t burdening you.
Hannah Orenstein, a collegiette at New York University, had a friend who was dealing with anorexia. Although her friend was getting the medical help of a doctor, nutritionist and therapist, she still lacked the feeling of support. “She was often insecure that she was boring me or pushing me away by talking so much about her eating disorder, so it was really important for me to remind her that I wanted to be her friend and that her eating disorder didn’t change that.”
What if she refuses your help when she really needs it?
In some situations, a friend might refuse your help (for example, in the case of an addiction that she denies). This is different from her pushing you away because in this case, she denies having a problem even though she is clearly suffering.
“If you feel that the individual’s safety is threatened in any way, you need to let a close family member know,” says Levine. “People are often in denial and lack insight, even in life-threatening situations.”
If this happens, make sure that you’re not enabling them in any way, such as bringing your friend to a party if she has a problem with drugs or alcohol, or lending money if they have a gambling addiction.
“Be sure to make the suggestion that help is available and the person needs to reach out for help,” says Levine. “For example, you might provide her with the phone number of AA or a domestic violence counselor.”
Each situation and each person is different but chances are your friend will appreciate your concern, even if she doesn’t express her appreciation in the moment. Continue to be there for her because sometimes, hard times test which friends are right for the job.