When a friend is going through a difficult time, it’s natural to want to help, but it’s not always easy to know how. Think about occasions where you’ve been in need yourself – what did your friends do? What did you find the most helpful? Some friends may have kept their distance and perhaps you felt hurt by that, but it could be that they really didn’t know what to say or do, or they simply assumed you would ask if you needed anything. It can be hard whichever side you’re on, whether you’re the one needing help, or the one offering it.
Here are eight ways that you can really help a friend in need.
1. Be Specific in Your Offers of Help
Vague comments like “Let me know if there’s anything I can do” are not likely to be taken up. Most people find it hard to ask for help, so telling them to let you know if they need anything is putting the onus back on them to ask. Often when people are going through difficult times, even everyday tasks can feel too much. So aside from offering them a shoulder to cry on, think about what practical help you can offer, and suggest specific things. For example “I’m going to the supermarket now, would you like to give me your list and I can pick up some things for you while I’m there?” Specific offers like that are more likely to be taken up.
2. Don’t Force Your Help on Them
Offer your help, but if they decline, then accept that. If you keep insisting you might make them feel worse. It may be that they have never really needed help before, or have been brought up to believe that they should be able to manage, no matter what. Or maybe they genuinely don’t want or need your help. That doesn’t mean you don’t offer to help again, it’s simply about being sensitive, and respecting what they say about their needs at the time.
3. Only Offer Help That You Are Genuinely Able to Give
Think carefully about what help you offer. In a hasty moment when your friend is very upset, it’s normal to want to make everything alright for them, but reflect a little about the realities of what you’re offering before you open your mouth. Not following through on what you’ve offered, or doing something grudgingly, is worse than not offering at all; your friend will feel let down, and you will feel wretched.
4. Don’t Assume You Know What’s Best For Them
However they are struggling, your friend that is suffering is still an adult and needs to make their own decisions. When people are going through difficult times, they may feel that much of what is happening to them is out of their control. If you attempt to take over everything, you’re adding to their loss of control. What might have been the best thing for you when you were going through a difficult time isn’t necessarily what is best for them. Be guided by them, if they want you to take charge of things, or make decisions for them, then fine, but that’s their choice not yours. The exception to this is if you are concerned that they may harm themselves, or others, in which case you will probably need to seek appropriate help for them, even if they don’t want it.
5. Remember That Small Thoughtful Gestures Go a Long Way
You may be limited in what you can do to help because of your own commitments, or for financial or geographical reasons, but don’t underestimate the value of small gestures. A card in the mail to let them know that you’re thinking of them can mean a lot, or a voicemail message to remind them you’re at the end of the phone if they want to talk is great for the friend to have. Perhaps you could do a bit of research on organizations or support groups that may be able to help, and email those details to your friend. Whatever your own situation, there will be small thoughtful things you can do to help which will probably be of greater value than you imagine.
6. Be Someone They Can Trust
Avoid sharing details of their situation with other friends unless they have given you permission. Your intentions might be good in talking it through with others, but your friend may have been telling you things in confidence, and will then feel you have broken their trust. They don’t need the added burden of feeling hurt and let down by you on top of whatever else they are going through.
7. Listen More Than Talk
If you’re usually more of a talker than a listener, now is the time to hold back. Avoid repeatedly giving your opinion on their situation unless they ask for it. Be guided by them, they may want to just offload to a sympathetic ear, or they may want you to offer suggestions. It’s best if you can keep your own emotions under control, you may feel upset or angry about what your friend is having to deal with, but you will be more help to them if you can remain calm as you listen. This will help them feel that you are dependable and a rock for them.
8. Help Them to See a Brighter Future
Depending on their situation, your friend may be finding it hard to imagine a time where they won’t feel like they currently do. Gently help them to look beyond that by giving them things to look forward to, simple things like an evening out. When you feel they’re ready, begin to talk positively with them about plans for the future. Again, be guided by your friend here, if they seem open to what you’re saying, then go with it, if they shut down then back off and try again another time. The most important thing is for them to know that you are there for them, now, and as they move forward into the future.
Featured photo credit: Talk/Matus Laslofi via flickr.com