How to Support Friends and Loved Ones Going Through a Hard Time

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No one is immune to pain in this lifetime. Not you and not your friends or loved ones.

Every single one of us eventually has a season in our lives where we are struggling. Death, loss, disappointment or something else. It’s during these challenging times we need our friends and loved ones more than ever to help us feel not so alone.

And conversely, when our friends hurt we hurt with them. But many of us feel uncertain about how to show our support. In contrast to their pain, our condolences seem hollow, insufficient. We feel uncomfortable and awkward with the loss that can’t be denied and our inability to say or do the right thing to help alleviate the suffering.

But despite our ambivalence, our friends and loved ones need us.

Here are some things you can do. The following six suggestions can empower you to extend the right kind of support and encouragement in the ways they need it most.

1- Recognize that Fear and Loneliness Come with the Sadness

What your friends are going through is likely deeply sad. But it’s also probably pretty shocking. Whether it’s immediate news or the prospect of a new reality from that news, you cannot fully understand the visceral fear they probably have.

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Your friend’s world just got turned upside down and they are facing a new terrifying reality. This intensity will diminish in time but just imagine being in their shoes and let that sink into your heart. That’s called empathy.

Likewise what soon accompanies fear is profound loneliness. Your loved one may feel in time increasingly isolated because he feels as if no one else truly understands what he’s going through. He starts to look upon his life from the paradigm of before (the event/news) and after. The existence he once knew and depended on will never be again and there’s probably a frustration that no one can quite understand his experience.  

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Unfortunately, no one has the magic words here to make all the pain go away. But there is some power to acknowledging the raw struggle of it all. It makes the sufferer feel less invisible and gives assurances that his emotions are both valid and acceptable.  

David, I know this is shocking and terribly painful. This is your own unique experience so whatever you’re feeling is real, natural, and totally acceptable. I will support you through this.

2 - Listen with Compassion

Part of the awkwardness that emerges when someone is dealing with loss is the pressure to say or do the right thing. You want to solve the problem to eliminate the pain. However, it’s not that simple. The deceased cannot be resurrected. The betrayal cannot be undone.

What your friend or loved one needs more than words is a listening ear. A place to safely lament unencumbered. To feel pure freedom to grieve.

It’s not your job to rid her of pain. It’s your job to just sit with her so she can process what she feels and not feel so alone.

I was given this gift the night my mother died.

My mother who had suffered a devastating injury months prior suddenly and unexpectedly went into cardiac arrest following my last visit with her an hour prior. Upon getting the call, I and a close family friend named Audrey immediately went to the hospital. When we arrived we were ushered into a consultation room where the doctors told us that my mother's passing was imminent.

Upon hearing the news, I felt like the room began to spin. And then I just sobbed. Audrey said no words. She respected the significance of the moment and my manner of processing it. She just rubbed my back and let me experience the weight of this new reality in the way I needed to. She seemed to have the wisdom to remain silent and not distraction me with supportive words that would have felt pointless at that moment.

That night, I felt incredible sadness but I never felt alone.

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3 - Don't Try to Pretty Up the Situation

I think it’s a natural tendency to want to find levity even in the hardest of situations. A good laugh is sometimes just what a person needs to temporarily escape a difficult reality. But you can’t be laughing all the time. An often suitable substitute is well-intended words of encouragement.

Suzy, you’ll be back in the dating scene in no time. That guy was a jerk anyway.

I have heard there are new promising treatments for this illness.

You should feel blessed and grateful for the many years you had with her.

Extending words that too quickly encourage acceptance of the situation and moving on to a new reality diminishes the experience and the feelings that go with it. It can be patronizing and demoralizing because it discounts the depths of the pain and loss. While the intention is understandable, projecting positivity too soon can leave your friend feeling frustrated and alienated.

Let him sit with it as is. The stages of grief work on their own timeline.

4 - Don’t Over-relate

At other times, you may wish to show your support by mentioning a similar situation or circumstance to your friend’s. You do this to show her that there’s a reason to hope as others have walked a similar path and have gotten through it.

But while you are trying to present some assurances that her pain is universal, you may instead be discounting her experience. Even though your anecdote may be very similar, it’s not the same. It’s never the same. Have enough respect for her and her unique circumstances to let her hold this loss as her own.

In time, when feelings are not so raw, it may be more appropriate to share similar stories. But only share ones with positive outcomes.

5 - Just Show Up

When someone is hurting, you want so desperately to help. But you may be at a loss for how to do so. You ask them, “What can I do? How can I help?”. While the compassion is there, it can become an undue burden on your friends to ask them to think logically through the tidal wave of emotions. Instead, you need to take charge and do something proactive and practical.

In her book Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience and Finding Joy, Sheryl Sandburg wrote about how to help a loved one through loss. She knew of this compassion first hand when her friends and loved ones helped her through the sudden loss of her husband at the age of 47.

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She suggested that supportive friends take action proactively. “Rather than offer to do something, it's often better to do anything. Just do something specific.” She recalled the story of a compassionate supporter. One of her friends who had had a son in the hospital for months received an unexpected text from another friend. It said, “I'm in the lobby of your hospital for an hour for a hug whether you come down or not.”

Besides extending needed emotional support, also be practical in your generosity. Help the sufferer clear out the challenges and obligations of his life. In the short term make him dinner, take care of his pets, clean his house. Don’t ask, just do it. Make his other problems go away, even if temporarily.

6 - Keep Showing Up

I always feel the saddest time after a loss is the weeks later. The time when the initial shock has worn off and the rush of support from friends and family has diminished. It’s the weeks and months after the funeral or diagnosis or the breakup when it’s expected that the suffer needs to “get back to real life”.

But he or she still has to pass through the painful milestones like new experiences or anniversaries that most people don’t know nor acknowledge. These can be the loneliest of times and when support is especially needed.

Be a good friend and reach out well after all the rallying support has disappeared. Make the call, plan a visit, offer a day of remembrance in a special way. Be proactive and intentional. Let her know that she’s not alone especially in the weeks and months later.

What to Do When You’re the One Struggling

Inevitability your time will come when you will be the one dealing with hardship, loss, or tragedy and you will need to count on your friends and loved ones. You may see this effort of emotionally supporting someone from a different angle.

Remember that people want to help but they feel uncertainty of what to do. If you have the presence of mind during this time, just tell them directly what you need.

This isn’t the time to feel self-conscious about being an imposition. This is when your relationships matter the most. Your loved ones will be relieved for the specific direction and will probably go beyond your simple requests.

Can you take the kids this weekend?

Can you run these errands for me?

Can you come by Friday evening to keep me company?

When Friends and Loved Ones Can’t Support You

Sometimes during difficult times, you’re dealt an additional blow when you don’t get the support you need from your friends. It can be a real shock when those you were sure would rush in are suddenly nowhere to be found.

There may be reasons for this that will never be visible to you. Your situation may conjure up feelings and fears that your friend just can’t handle. They may feel anxious about what’s happening to you or project the scenarios for themselves and it’s just too much to process. So instead of compartmentalizing their emotions, they just shut down.

It’s painful but probably not intentional.

While this is pouring salt in your wounds, try if you can to understand that your hardship may be affecting your loved ones in their own way. And that they may need to go through their own timeline and manner to process it. I guess this is where empathy is now on the other foot. Even though you may be the one hurting, you may need to extend the courtesy of understanding to someone else.

When Friends and Loved Ones Unexpectedly Surprise You

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But on the flip side, you may be shocked at who does show up. People you would have never expected to express such compassion and support suddenly come into the foreground. They are proactive, tender, and helpful. Little did you expect but you feel profound comfort and reassurance from them caring for you.

These people may have the ability to process challenging circumstances more productively. Or they possess an inner resolve to put aside difficult emotions for the service of others.

In fact, they may be the type that keeps emotions at bay most of the time but becomes the dependable rock when one is most needed. And when the intensity of the event or situation diminishes, you may begin to look at this friend in a whole new light. One with more admiration and appreciation.

Final Thoughts

Hardship, heartache, tragedy, and loss are unfortunately part of the human experience. It’s during these dark days we turn to our loved ones of friends and family for support. They can emotionally hold you up when you feel like you’ve been cut at the knees.

In time, you will be on either side of this equation — as the supporter or the sufferer.  Regardless of your position, take action or give direction while showing profound empathy. The pain eventually subsides and that happens in part because of the love we either give or receive when it matters most.

Take Action!

If a friend or loved one is going through a difficult time, create a plan for demonstrating your support. Extend the gift of listening and empathy while being proactive in easing her burdens. Keep showing up well after the initial shock has worn off.

What other ways can you show support to a loved one going through a hard time? Whether emotional or practical?

Let’s share some ideas in the comments section.