Hi, friends. I’m here to talk about something that no one likes, and that is when you have a friend going through something hard, but especially and specifically when it is a thing you yourself have never experienced directly. Because that’s where things get tricky. You want to be there for them, but you have literally no idea what they are going through. All the imagination in the world doesn’t give you the skills to put yourself in their shoes. It’s true, and it’s ok. I’m here to tell you that you can still show up and be a friend to that person! Loss, infertility, adoption, foster care, step-parenting, a tough diagnosis, difficult news about a child or family member – whatever the thing may be – and whether or not you understand it on a personal level – you can still be there for them. I’m going to tell you how I think that can work best. But first, in my own experience, here are some things not to do.
Seriously. This is cardinal rule #1 of being there. Disappearing is POOR FORM. If you have a friend going through a thing – don’t ghost your friend. The easiest thing to do would be to tap out, saying well, I don’t know what they are going through. What kind of help would I be? I’ll tell you what doesn’t help, ever – and that’s going away. You can’t be there if you’re not there. That’s not how it works.
Don’t push a comparison.
It is not a requirement of being there to have known someone who went through the same thing, especially if it’s third hand. If you get it – certainly, go ahead, commiserate! If you don’t get it – just own that. Don’t show up with 13 prepared stories about your mom’s friend from grade school and your sister-in-law’s second cousin and a friend of a friend of a friend who also went through this. What I’m saying is basically: consider your comparisons before you bring them to the table. Assess your friend’s state of mind. Is the story going to help or harm?
Don’t make it weird.
Try, oh please try, not to look at/treat/talk to your friend like they have three heads all of a sudden. By all means: account for how they are feeling in the way you’re acting, but don’t treat them like a circus freak. I know it may sound like, well of course I would never do that! but you’d be surprised. When someone is going through a hard thing another someone doesn’t understand firsthand, the non-understander can get a little weird. And there’s nothing that makes a person going through a thing feel less welcome/safe/cared for than treating them like an alien from outer-space all of a sudden. They’re still you’re person. Just don’t make it weird.
The do’s, I promise, are very simple and straight forward.
You don’t have to take a class or be a certified therapist in order to do these. In fact, I am a licensed therapist, and I learned almost none of this in my masters program. I learned it from going through hard things. And going through hard things with people I love. And as a result of those valuable – if less than pleasant – life experiences, here is what I suggest:
Number one. Most important. Don’t screw this one up:
Your loved one is hurting. Their world has been changed in some minor or major way. You are scared because you don’t have that same struggle. Maybe they lost a parent and yours are still living. Maybe they’ve experienced a miscarriage and you have a months-old baby. You can still show up. You don’t have to know what to say. You don’t even have to bring anything, though I find sometimes that makes it a little easier. But show up. Text, call, head on over. Offer to babysit, make dinner, bring wine, sit with them. If they decline, you can respect that space while still showing up. If they aren’t ready for visitors, send cards via the old fashioned post office. It’s a totally non-threatening, no-need-to-respond way of showing up. Just don’t not show up. [See also: don’t disappear.]
Their reaction to whatever their hard thing is may not look like what you imagine your own reaction would be. That’s ok though, because you don’t have to read their minds! Your responsibility is to listen. Listen to how they talk about this hard thing. If they’ve acquired a child in a different way than you’re used to, listen to the way they talk about their experience. Apply same logic to other situations. Make no assumptions. Listen to the language they use – and respect it by using it back to them. If you don’t agree or didn’t do it it that way yourself, that’s ok. They’ll tell you, with their words, what they are comfortable with. They should give you the same deference. I can’t stress this enough. Throughout hard things, language can become important, something to cling to. If they’re not saying big hard words (like, INFERTILITY, or CANCER, or DISABLED) – listen to that.
Bring what you’ve got.
There are 2 sub-categories here: the first, is what to say. The important thing here is to listen first. Once you’ve listened, bring what you’ve got. Right off the bat, I’ll tell you, there is no right thing to say. There’s not even a good thing to say. So the pressure of saying something right or good should never stop you from saying what you’ve got. There is no perfect combination of words to alleviate their discomfort or pain or stress or frustration. If you’re funny, make them laugh. If you’re sad for them, be sad with them. If you’re not at all sure what to say, SAY THAT. If it appears the things you’re saying aren’t helping, see also: Listen. All people are looking for, in my experience, is their people. So show up. Say whatever. It won’t be perfect and that’s fine.
And second: what to do. Again, the rule of thumb here is to bring what you’ve got. If you cook, bring food. Social? Keep them company. Good with kids? Offer childcare. Are you a clean freak? Clean their house. And if nothing else – you just show up. Bring you.
I’ve kept this general, and that’s on purpose. There are endless examples and scenarios and ideas for how to care for your people. The intention of this was to remind you that your person is still your person. Show up for them during their thing. Keep showing up after other people have stopped because, hey, it’s been 2 months/ a year/ the seasons changed, they’re not over it? Surely they’re fine. Remind them you remember. You’re still around. You know their heart is still tender. And you’re going to keep right on showing up, listening, and bringing what you’ve got right on into the next hard thing. That’s what keeps a person feeling loved. And that is what you can do for a person going through a thing, regardless if you understand it or not.