One of the most challenging parts of a true friendship is when a tragedy befalls someone you love. Watching a friend go through a really tough time – like a death in the family, a serious illness, an accident – can be painful, heart wrenching and many times perplexing. Do you call or give the person space? Are you allowed to tell other mutual friends or is this a private matter? Should you bring over food, a hug or pray at home for their healing?
What is the place for a friend when life really sucks?
One challenge is that you, the friend, mean well and you only want to help. However, it’s a delicate balance of being supportive and inserting yourself into the drama. You may find yourself having a more immediate emotional reaction than your friend. For many people, the first thing that happens when terrible things come down the pike is complete system shut down. Some people aren’t able to cry or even repeat what has happened to anyone. It’s such overwhelming information they can’t process it at all. But you can, because you are one degree removed. Just remember you may have more clarity than your friend, but deliver any news with care.
First, remember that this thing isn’t happening to you. It’s happening to the person you care about. So you have to put the focus back on your friend and think about how you can be of service – and what you would want if the tables were turned.
Tips and examples:
“I’m getting a divorce.”
More and more common these days, but still a shock. It’s a death in your friend’s life – the death of their marriage. And no matter how bad things had been for however long, when the final decision is made to dissolve matrimony, there are a lot of emotions your friend is going to have to face. What not to do is suggest the obvious, “Have you thought about counseling?” “Are you sure you can’t just work it out?” MOst likely, by the time your friend is telling you they’re headed for the lawyers, they have tried to work it out with their spouse. You probably don’t know all the details, and you don’t need to… But, resist working out your own feelings about relationships in front of your friend.
Phrases like, “Well, if you two can’t make it, then there is just no hope at all for me,” are not helpful at all. Just listen, listen, listen. And if you’ve hung out with their spouse and yours as a foursome, make some time to hang out one on one. Take a moment to think before you speak. Talking about how awesome your relationship is going or the big plans you have for your anniversay is not advised. Also, remember, you can only be friends with one of them – so don’t engage with their ex! That will create more pain than you know. Harsh as that sounds, it’s reality in a divorce. You can’t play “Switzerland.” It will backfire on you.
“I Was In A Bad Car Accident.”
Long lingering injuries from a car accident can change a person’s life. Back injuries can stop someone from being able to work or even sit up for long periods of time. Broken bones don’t sound like a big deal, but wearing a cast isn’t easy for months on end. It’s funny the first time you try to shower, it’s depressing the third time. Your friend is going to need you to help out down the line – especially if they can’t drive. What many don’t realize is that getting better is a full time job. Physical therapy, insurance forms and court appearances are all part of a major accident. If your friend can’t work, even if they have disability insurance, they are likely facing a big salary reduction. So listen patiently to complaints and breakdowns. There may be a lot of them. Offer to accompany them to a doctor’s appointment and go to lunch afterwards. Help them remember that they are still the friend you treasure, even if they are wearing a neck brace! They’re gonna be battling some pretty serious self-pity, so get them out of the house and back into the world. It will aid their healing.
“My family member has a fatal disease.”
With our state-of-the-art modern medicine, doctors can deliver devastating news with plenty of time to tell everyone in the family and get affairs in order. But that also means a prolonged period of incredible anxiety watching a spouse or parent go through subsequent care for months or even years. Remember, a loved one’s personality can change from taking painkillers and the logistics of round-the-clock care can be part of a drawn out process. And what’s hard is that neither your friend nor you have any idea how long this suspension of normalcy will last. Your friend may be traveling every weekend, trying to get all the time they can with their loved one. They may be on edge, always waiting for the phone to ring.
So the first thing is to offer to help in any way you can. Watching pets or running an errand here and there can go a long way. Know that your problems will not have your friend’s full attention. How it went on last night’s date just doesn’t have much weight when someone is hoping their family member will live through the holidays. So tone down your expectations and offer to pick up the dry-cleaning. It will go a long way.
The ability for us to connect to one another emotionally is a mandate of a meaningful life. We are here to heal and grow with one another. So when a friend experiences a tragedy, it’s a time for you to grow in your compassion and love. Some people can accept help easily while others go inward. Even if it seems like all you can do is pray or keep a good thought for them, being there spiritually is still being there. And in the end, as we bear witness to each other’s lives, that is what friendship is all about.
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