How to be a good friend to someone in crisis
Updated: Jul 10, 2020
What you DON’T can be just as important as what you DO say to a friend going through any kind of life crisis including divorce
I am lucky enough to have amazing friends who have not only carried me through some very difficult moments in my life, but have also showed me what a true friend really is. It is through these girls that I have really learned what friendship is and how to show up for the celebrations but also how to walk a difficult road in the darker times together.
We all have times when things get tough and as a friend we want to love and support each other more than ever. It might be divorce, but it could be any crisis situation: financial stress, illness, death, issues with children, job loss, abuse, mental health, the list goes on. Life has no shortage of challenges to navigate and it’s our friends and family that provide the support and strength get us through these times!
But what is the best way to show up when someone you love is going through something hard? Sometimes that person can seem unresponsive, unreasonable, could be depressed or angry or you just don’t really know what to do. You might feel totally powerless. How can we best help?
After speaking with many friends who have gone through very difficult times and navigating my own life obstacles, I’ve put together some best practices on how to show up. Of course, there is no one way and everyone responds differently so do what feels right to you! You will have to be a little intuitive and flexible, but this should help guide the way a little bit.
The first and best thing you can do is show up! When things get hard, sometimes we don’t know what to do to help. So we do nothing. This in and of itself is an action. A negative one - and it can feel very hurtful when you are going through something difficult and you feel like someone close to you doesn’t care. Reach out, check in and say something open ended like –
“Hey, I know things are kind of hard right now - how are you doing?”
But be sure to ask in a way that shows you care and that you really want to know. Doing nothing can make that person feel like you don’t care. Yes, we are all busy, I know it’s hard work to show up and life’s dramas are tough to listen to; but just a simple phone call can make a huge difference.
Don’t be offended if they aren’t responsive
There isn’t always logic behind this, but sometimes you aren’t the right person for whatever emotion or concern that person has on that day. I know, it doesn't feel good - but don’t take it personally!
In life and in friendships, sometimes one person just has a quality that fills a need on a certain day. And that’s ok! It doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with you or that they don't need you or don't value their support. It is really about them in that moment. If it’s someone else’s support that day – try your best to support that. Your turn will come!
After asking how they are doing, try your best to be respectful and listen. You don’t need to know every detail or ask a barrage of invasive questions at this time. They may not be ready to reveal everything. Many of life’s problems are very private. Mine were and it took me a long time to be able to share some of the details. When someone is ready to open up and reveal the deep, private part of their pain, they will offer it up. But in the mean time, try to respect their need for time and space.
Don’t feel the need to fix things for them
Right now, as much as you want to halp, your job is not to come up with solutions unless that person asks for advice or guidance. Usually we don't have the power to solve their problem anyway!
The most important thing right now is to listen, be present, and have compassion and empathy. Saying things like:
“That must be really hard.”
“I can’t imagine how you feel.”
“What are you going to do?”
“Do you want to talk through some options?”
These are neutral ways to communicate that you are listening and shows your compassion. They will feel heard, loved and supported. They actually may not be ready to hear ideas or solutions yet. Trauma can cause shock, disbelief and denial in the beginning and they may need to process that first before even thinking about solutions.
This one can be super hard! Some situations feel like watching a car wreck and we can feel compelled to jump in and try to save our loved one. Or simply get frustrated with the back and forth on their decisions. Continuing to support someone when they go back and make the same mistakes over and over again can be so difficult. You want better for them and if feels like they "get it" some of the time!
Understand that that person has to get to their place of decision on their own. You can still be a good friend and show them the truth and reality as you see it in a gentle loving way, but they need you to be their friend not matter what decision they are ready to make or not.
Saying things like:
“I would love to see you in a healthy relationship where you are treated with respect.”
“I want so many good things for you.”
"No matter what you decide, I will always be here for you."
These are the ways to gently guide and express your concern without being judgy. Most of the time we haven't been through the same things that person has and it's so incredibly hard to know what you would do until you are actually there. I can attest to this with my divorce!
Point our their strengths and what they are doing well
Encouragement and love is always appreciated, even if it feels like it’s not open to being received. Don’t give up! When someone is buried so deep in fear, despair and anxiety, they may not be capable of responding appropriately to love and kindness. We can feel like we don’t deserve those kindnesses and have trouble being open to receiving them. But, believe me, we still hear it! And if you say it enough times in enough ways, eventually we will believe it. Don’t give up or stop and don’t underestimate the value of this support.
You might say things like:
“Look at how much you have accomplished. You will keep moving forward and will get this behind you.”
“You are doing an amazing job navigating a really tough situation.”
“I’m so proud of how much work you have done to resolve this”
“ I really admire your strength”
These are all super encouraging and specific. This kind of support never gets old and can be so uplifting when you feel overwhelmed.
Don’t point out what they should be grateful for
When you are suffering through trauma, this does not mean you don’t see the good things. You do. It just means that the trauma is so overwhelming that you are focused on keeping your head above water. Saying to someone:
“Well, at least your kids are doing well”
“You have a roof over your head”
“At least this you are healthy”
“You should be grateful for all the things you do have”
These kind of statements make you feel like your feelings aren't valid. It comes across as you are telling them that they are overreacting and are not allowed to feel those emotions. Of course they know that there are good things in their lives, but sometimes the you need to be able to talk about the yucky feelings and get those out too.
Don’t share private conversations. When someone is entrusting you with their trauma, it is not yours to share with anyone. They are coming to you because they believe that you are trustworthy and that you will keep confidence. Don’t give in to the temptation to tell others – even your spouse! You will know when they are ready to open up the conversation to share more widely. And if you are not sure and feel the need to tell someone else, ask first.
Don’t wait for an invitation for that person to ask for support! Take initiative and check in. They may not be capable of asking for help, or don’t feel worthy in that moment. You can keep it super simple - just send a text – checking in. How are you today? Can you meet for coffee? If they say no, honor that, but don’t be offended. Sometimes when handling trauma, even little kindnesses can’t be accepted. Don’t worry, that will change as they manage the issue and heal, but keep reaching out. It means everything and is appreciated so much more than you know.
Acknowledging, accepting and processing trauma and healing all take lots of time. And some parts of the process take longer than others. We have to believe that the universe helps us process and handle things in the time we are supposed to, and not a minute faster. It can be extremely frustrating to watch someone you love suffer, seemingly unnecessarily, because they are not ready or are not choosing to deal with something or make a change. They have to come to their own place of change and healing in their own time. You can’t do it for them or push them faster than they are ready to go. It will all happen in time, on their schedule.
Managing trauma and rising strong are a part of life, and being a support for someone during these times is a privilege. Sometimes showing up for each other means holding back and just being there while that person figures out their own way.