Over the past year, I've had friends get divorced, relapse, and lose loved ones. I've had family members break down because of mental health issues. I've witnessed successful entrepreneurs get their whole businesses wiped out and suffer in silence.
What is happening around the world is terrible and heartbreaking. This is why it was crucial for me to learn how to better support my loved one during their times of crises.
I came across the book, There is No Good Card For This: What To Say and Do When Life is Scary, Awful, and Unfair to People You Love by Kelsey Crowe and Emily McDowell, after hearing Emily speak at a conference called World Domination Summit.
I absolutely loved her talk and was thrilled to read the book when it finally came out. The book had so much nuanced information and practical tools that helped me support the people I cared most about.
If you'd like to better show up for your loved ones, let's dive in. ❤️
Why We Don't Reach Out To Those Who Are Suffering
When I was a senior in high school, my mom told me that she's going to get divorced. I didn't know how to react at first. But I started tearing up silently in my room, confused at what just happened.
I texted a few friends that I was already talking to that night about the news. I didn't really think much of it and turned to online gaming as a way to distract myself.
Two hours later, my best friend Viet unexpectedly calls me, and tells me to go outside.
I see Viet pull up into my driveway with my favorite boba drink from Tapioca Express. I didn't realize how happy I was to see him until I gave him a big hug and let out a few tears. We didn't say much to each other but he knew that I really appreciated his act of kindness.
To this day, I'll never forget how much that meant to me.
This wasn't some extravagant act that only a trained therapist could do. Even at 16 years old, Viet had the compassion to help a friend who was going through a tough time. I feel a wave of gratitude even typing up this story.
Good-hearted people (like you) really WANT to help our friends. But we often look the other way and do nothing because we are scared that we will:
- Do the wrong thing
- Say the wrong thing
- Not have enough time or bandwidth to help
What you're going to read below will give you concrete tools to help people. But even without those tools, just know that you showing up is already good enough.
If you take away one thing from this article, I hope it is this.
"If you're choosing between saying something and saying nothing, you're almost always better off saying something."
Understand What They're Going Through
For someone going through grief, it may look like:
- Loss of identity
- Loss of companionship
- Loss of community
- Loss of confidence
- Loss of economic Security
Your friend may be scared, vulnerable, and ashamed. This makes it hard for them to ask for help because they don't want to feel like a burden, they don't know what they need, or they may be simply overwhelmed.
This means that as a caring bystander, you have the opportunity and the responsibility, to show up and offer help without being asked.
Remember, reaching out and fumbling is often far better than not reaching out at all.
What should I know before I reach out?
Your friend is (usually) not looking for advice or to hear how much you know about what they're going through.
The best way to have a conversation with someone in a difficult time is not in the talking, but in the listening.
Practice creating a safe space to openly share by listening without judgment.
This all might sound quite basic but it is INCREDIBLY powerful to allow someone to be 100% themselves and give space to share how they are really feeling with a trusted friend.
While you're listening, you're focused entirely on what the person is saying, and you're not simultaneously thinking about how you're going to respond. In most cases, this is the best kind of listening we can do.
Why is this better than giving them advice on how to solve their problem?
1. You can't solve the problem (and you don't need to).
We say things like."Just give it time" or "You'll have a new ____ (baby, job, partner etc) in no time!" or "Have you tried ..."
This works if someone loses their iPhone. It doesn't work if someone suffered a major loss. The one thing you need to understand about grief is that you don't get over loss. You learn to live with it.
2. You'll never know how they feel.
Just because you're empathizing with someone doesn't mean you'll ever be able to know exactly how they feel.
"I know you how you feel" is a common saying we use to make someone feel better. But saying this can sound dismissive of that suffering person's own, unique experience. Just because you've gone through a divorce doesn't mean you know how they are experiencing their divorce.
What should I say instead?
Instead of making assumptions on how they are feeling, say the words "I'm sorry for [reason]."
Try asking "How are you?"
This may sound elementary but doing this:
- Acknowledges that you remember and care about what's going on
- Lets the grieving person have the option to share as much info as they want.
These are great basic questions to open a conversation. But there are times when it's pretty clear that question will drive someone crazy.
This is especially true when the person you're asking is clearly distraught, or in the first few days or weeks of a significant tragedy and still in crisis.
Here are other questions you can consider:
- "What's that like for you?" Or "How's that going for you?"
- "How are you, today?" You acknowledge that their life is difficult and you're not expecting to hear an answer that says everything is fine. There are good days and bad ones.
- "How are you, now?" Asking about "now" allows someone to express feelings and even perspectives about their loss that can be quite different from those experienced at the initial time of loss.
What should I not say?
Most people believe in getting things done rather than just letting things be, and we believe that "healing" means getting over rather than learning to live with the loss.
Our discomfort with suffering, and our rush to make it stop, can result in simple minded fixes that suggest the problem of grief is an easy one to get over. This superficial effort just makes the suffering person feel more broken (and pathetic) for suffering at all, and more detached from the person trying to help.
For all these reasons, it's best to avoid look-on-the-bright-side phrases and platitudes.
Avoid suggesting cures. Avoid the word "should."
Avoid all of these:
- Why not adopt?
- Have you tried yoga?
- What about couples counseling?
- Have you looked for a job on Craigslist?
What can I do?
There are several simple things that you can give that will make your friend feel loved and supported.
I love the empathy menu in the book of the different roles you can do to help.
For me, I often play the role of the listener, opposable thumbed, perseverer, networker, and whimsical gift giver. There's not an exact role in this menu but I also play the role of event organizer, planning small gatherings to help my friend find human connection.
What are your strengths? What feels authentic to you?
Once you are comfortable knowing what you can give, you get to decide how much to give.
People who can drop everything and care for us are a wonderful gift, but that person doesn't have to be you. It's perfectly okay if what you offer is simple or seemingly small.
How should I communicate with them?
Sending an email or a text is a perfectly ok way to start. If you want to go the extra mile, send a hand-written card! (yes, remember those?)
It's not about finding the right channel or the right words, but simply connecting.
When should you reach out?
If you are close to the person:
- If they reached out to you first, make contact immediately by phone, and then in person (if possible).
- Visit the person within the week. If that isn't possible, be a regular presence with texts and phone calls. Just be sure to stress that there's no need to call or text back.
If you are an acquaintance with some regular interaction at work or in your social life:
- You can wait a week or two to send an email, a card, or flowers.
- Don't make immediate contact, as it can overwhelm the person
- It's probably best not to call. People often feel overwhelmed by too many phone calls.
Try this if someone has COVID or any chronic health problem
Try this if you are helping a friend go through a big loss
Should you even help in the first place?
You might be thinking... I genuinely want to help my friend but I really don't have the space in my life to support everyone. It will be like a full-time job!!
That is a completely normal thoughts and I have good news: You don't need to help everybody, or anyone really, for three main reasons:
- Sometimes life gets in the way and crises often happen at the most inconvenient time. When we're stressed, research shows we are less likely to feel empathy for other people. So don't sweat it too much.
- The person you care about is actually really hard to care for. Mental illnesses, addictions, and dementia for example are way more emotionally and financially demanding than you, a normal human being, can handle.
- There are people in our lives who are takers, who will always want more than we can reasonably give.
Show compassion for yourself. Recognize that maybe you (a) can't do it all, or (b) don't want to do it all.
That is OK. You are enough.
When you do have space in your life to support others, you can do so without guilt and with full confidence.
My two favorite quotes from the book are:
"Tiny pebbles make wide ripples."
"Caring takes a village."
A simple text message or act of kindness goes a long way. This book made me realize that I have the opportunity (and responsibility) to show up for my loved ones and that it's actually not that difficult to do.
If you want to dig deeper into this material, you can support the amazing authors by buying their book, There is No Good Card For This.
I hope you enjoyed this piece. Wishing you the best of luck in supporting your friends and family during the pandemic. ❤️
Tam Pham's Blog
I write about my adventures, learnings, and reflections on living my weird, unconventional life. Subscribe below!