What happens when a friend faces a crisis? How do you bridge the gap between their world and yours? Emma Johnson looks at how to support and connect in trying times
Remember when your biggest friendship challenge was where to go for dinner? Or what holiday to book? Or whose turn it was to clean out the fridge? You are likely to have lived parallel lives with your closest friends: sharing schools, postcodes and, importantly, problems.
But, as we age, these change as we go off-piste from each other: illness, infertility, financial worries, divorce, death, loss, mental health struggles. The chances are that we, or those close to us, will have to navigate very real challenges – ones that can no longer be eased with a tub of ice-cream and a Friends marathon.
At these points, as the cliché says, you find out who your real friends are. Who is able to sit in the difficult moments with you? Who can cope with hard times without trying to fix them or add a positive spin? Who doesn’t demand a brave face?
If we want friendships to survive life’s ups and downs, we have to ensure we know how to be there for each other in the worst moments. So how do we be that person for someone?
It’s not easy. Supporting someone in crisis requires a commitment to listening, being open and facing demons of your own. ‘As we change in life,’ says psychotherapist Julia Samuel, author of This Too Shall Pass: Stories of Change, Crisis and Hopeful Beginnings, ‘so our relationships will change, with our partner, family and friends. That means we need to find ways of communicating our love, what we need, as well as having difficult but important conversations.’
Often, when someone goes through something challenging, our first instinct is to relate it back to ourselves – ‘I remember when this thing happened to me…’ This is fear and anxiety rearing their head, and can put up barriers between the person suffering and the friend who wants to help but fears being in the same position. We have to be brave enough to walk towards the thing we are afraid of – even if it terrifies us.
‘People kind of looked at me like I was a ghost,’ said Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg after the loss of her husband. ‘I think they were so afraid of saying the wrong thing that they hardly said anything at all.’
That instinct to ignore, to try not to offend, while very human, is one we must disregard, especially when it comes to close friends. We cannot ignore whatever is going on – even if we don’t understand it or don’t want to talk about it – because they can’t ignore it. Uncomfortable or not, it’s happening.
So it’s not okay to say ‘Sorry’, then never mention it again. It’s not okay to be ‘too busy’ to check in or to look the other way and assume they’ll ask for help if they need it. ‘What they’re going through is not contagious — but what you’re doing is alienating, insensitive, rude and really hurtful,’ says Amy Hoggart, a writer for Time who lost her father after a three-and-a-half-year battle with cancer.
Keep talking. Keep trying. Try not to worry too much about saying the right thing. Follow your instincts and, if you come from a place of love, it’s likely that you will say the right thing.
According to Samuel, it is important not to skirt around the issue: you can be kind without being vague. When friends lost their daughter, she visited and said: ‘I am terribly sorry to hear that your daughter, Amber, has died. I’m sorry that such a devastating thing has happened to you.’ Directly, and without euphemisms, she addressed the tragedy that had occurred, shared the sorrow of the grieving parents and didn’t shy away from the enormity of what had happened. She used names and specifics to acknowledge the exact pain of the moment.
This kind of empathy is what enduring friendships are built on. It’s okay to be shocked and saddened for someone. It’s okay to not understand their own experience. The important thing is to find a way to meet their needs without putting yours in there too.
When a friend was diagnosed with cancer, I sent her a message telling her that I couldn’t imagine how she was getting through the day. Looking back, I see that was the wrong thing to say. Characterising her experience as a catastrophe and putting myself in the frame only made it worse, requiring her to be strong for me.
Later, when I spent time with her, I sensed that what she really craved was normality. Now I send her funny podcast suggestions, or chat with her about the latest episode of Queer Eye. I still ask how her chemotherapy is going and offer to help with her young son, but now her needs are front and centre, where they should be.
This practice of active, mindful listening has never been more important. As Hoggart explains, first reach out, then wait and judge the reaction. ‘Be sensitive to this and change the subject if you sense that’s easier for them,’ she advises. ‘Then you can rest assured that they know you care, and that you’re there if they do want to talk.’
If someone does want to talk, listen without putting yourself in the conversation and be so present that you can hear what’s being said even when there are no words. Avoid ‘I’ sentences – ‘I remember when I had a scan…’ or ‘I just can’t imagine…’ Try to ask questions instead: ‘How is that for you?’ ‘What are your thoughts on…?’
Remember, you can’t solve their problems. It’s natural to want to make everything better, but well-meaning suggestions of how to fix issues only undermine the enormity of them for someone else.
‘When I was going through IVF, I had friends tell me that they’d read about certain supplements or foods that help,’ says journalist Olivia Cox. ‘Or they glibly told me to stay positive and just keep trying. I know it came from a good place, but it felt like they were somehow blaming me – maybe I wasn’t eating right or researching enough or trying hard enough. Ultimately it just made me feel more dismissed and alone.’
Good friendship requires empathy, patience, compassion and a willingness to sit in the difficult moments of life. The good news is that these are the moments when you forge the strongest bonds.
And there are no gestures too big. When I experienced a miscarriage many years ago, a friend who didn’t have children sent me flowers with a touching note that said simply, ‘I’m so sorry you’re going through this.’ Her ability to be compassionate, to open her mind to my experience and to send something so thoughtful, with words of empathy, made a huge difference.
When reaching out, it’s important to put the other person first. Asking how you can help can be a kind gesture, but it can add pressure on the person suffering. “Tell me how I can help you” may just feel like another ask.
Sandberg suggests that taking any ask away from those in pain can be helpful. ‘My wonderful friend tragically lost a son and spent many months in a hospital before that,’ she explained to NPR. ‘One of his friends texted him and said, “What do you not want on a burger?” – not, “Do you want dinner?” Another friend texted and said, “I’m in the lobby of your hospital for an hour for a hug whether you come down or not. Just show up.”’
Being available is important. Hoggart explains how she and a friend changed their contacts settings so, even when their phones were on silent, the other’s call would still get through. Other people have set up SOS systems, so the person struggling can simply text “SOS” and know that someone will show up, no questions asked.
Make sure you’re in it for the long run and try not to ‘front load’ your support for the early days. Keep checking in; keep being there. In ‘the dark days’ following her husband’s death, said Sandberg, ‘The girls checked in daily. They took turns coming to California. By showing up again and again, they proved to me that I was not alone.’
When a friend lost her husband, I – like many others – made sure to check in most days. It was appreciated and it helped, while she dealt with everything that comes immediately after death. But much later is when it makes the most difference. Birthdays, Father’s Day, wedding anniversaries, the yearly anniversary of his death – on these days I acknowledge the day, tell her I love her and suggest things I can do to help her.
Pain and suffering can drive wedges between friends, especially if you cannot bring your own life experiences to that moment. It can feel impossible to empathise or understand, and we worry that what we say makes it worse, or that we are simply ill-equipped for the enormous grief or hardship that a loved one is experiencing.
But true friendship is cemented in the refusal to walk away, in the acceptance of being whatever is needed in that moment – whether it’s practical help, emotional support, your time, or even your space.
If you can listen, if you can take yourself out of the dialogue, if you can love them through their pain, these bonds will stand the test of time.