Supporting someone going through a painful experience is always difficult, but there are things you can say (and not say) that might actually help.
I’ve recently returned home from spending time with my very dear friend who lost her husband of many years when he died suddenly, just a week after a diagnosis of lung cancer. Because I was struggling to know how to be there for her, I realized many others would also be at a loss when they were trying to support a loved one through a crisis time. I decided to share what I discovered and offer some simple, but not easy, guidelines.
My friend shared with me that often others’ attempts to be consoling had quite the opposite effect.
What she really wanted was just to have her feelings acknowledged. She didn’t want to be told what to think, feel, or do.
She was slowly beginning her own painful process of grieving, for the loss of her beloved husband as well as for the life she knew.
Sometimes it takes a personal crisis to examine what we truly believe about life. She had moved beyond the “Why me?” question and was now facing the challenge of finding the spirit to create a new life for herself. My friend was realizing that what others call the recovery process for her was not a recovery in the sense that you get over it; rather it was a sense of living with new realities — more of a letting be than a letting go.
In How to Survive the Loss of a Love, the authors have this to say about pain:
Don’t postpone, deny, cover or run from your pain. Be with it… The only way out is through.
Parker Palmer in his book, The Active Life: Wisdom for Work, Creativity, and Caring, talks about how most of his friends tried to rescue him to no avail with well-intended advice when he was experiencing deep depression. One friend, however, took a different tack. Every afternoon around four o’clock he came, sat him in a chair, removed his shoes, and massaged his feet, hardly saying a word. But his presence provided a lifeline, a link to humanity.
When we want to support others in their emotional pain we think we should do something — but it’s enough to just be there in whatever way we can — and they want.
In my experience, it’s the mere being there that our loved ones want.
It’s hard to know what to say to someone who is wrestling with tragedy and heartbreak. It’s easier to know what not to say. Anything that tries to minimize the person’s pain will be unwelcomed (e.g., “It could be a lot worse.”) as will asking the person to disguise or reject his or her feelings (e.g., “Don’t take it so hard.”).
Here are some dos and don’ts to guide you in being a mindful friend when someone needs you:
- Be there
- Stay quiet
- Just listen
- Acknowledge their feelings
- Honor their needs
- Accept their truth
- Stay away or not be in contact
- Fill the silence with words
- Offer advice
- Down-play the intensity of their feelings
- Tell them what you think they need
- Impose what would be true for you
You may also enjoy reading Tenderly Holding the Bitter & Sweet: Finding Gratitude Within Life’s Beauty and Pain by Indira Abby Heijnen