How to Support a Friend in Devastating Times
A sequel to “Dear Diary, My Boyfriend is Dead”
I had been thinking about writing a sequel to “Dear Diary, My Boyfriend is Dead” but nothing felt right. Then, I had the idea for this article and knew that this was what I wanted to share.
I’ll start by stating that my friends are incredible. We’ve had ups and downs, we all made mistakes and that’s okay. I am assuming that if you are reading this, it’s because you already are or are interested in being a more amazing friend. I hope this helps you in some way and thank you for being here.
The following is meant to guide you and is 100% based on my own personal experience and preferences. Pick the actions that suit you best, that suit the relationship and adjust them to the circumstance. This article is not meant to guilt you into action, it’s meant for you to use as a resource. I decided to include some snippets of my life that I called SOML. I just googled it and it’s also an acronym for story of my life, still appropriate. I am hoping that they’ll help humanize this article and make it easier for you to understand what your friend is going through. Here it goes…how to support a friend in devastating times.
Set yourself reminders
The first thing I suggest doing is to put important dates in your calendar as recurring yearly events. My date is July 25th. The first year, some people remembered. The 2nd year, some people forgot. The other day, my friend asked me “what do you want me to do on that date?” It was difficult to answer, it’s hard to ask for help. I’m scared of being self-centered and guilting people into doing things. Also, I have no idea how I’ll be feeling that day and feel bad about asking someone to be available if there’s a chance I’ll want to be alone. I guess all I can do is communicate and trust my friends’ ability to judge and decide for themselves.
Here’s what you can say/do:
- “I’m keeping myself available for you that day. You don’t have to decide now what you want to do. If you need me, I’ll stop whatever I’m doing and be there.”
- “I’m working that day but if you’re up for it come over for dinner.”
- “I know what this period represents for you. Here are my availabilities this week if you want to be around people.”
- You can send your friend a text, memes or emojis if that’s what the friendship is about.
Be available and make sure the person knows
I wasn’t expecting people to be available for me all the time, but it was hard for me to know if I was being too much. I felt insecure about it. If you are willing to get a phone call in the middle of the night, if you are willing to have them over for a sleepover or for dinner anytime, if you are willing to sleepover, say it. Communicate it clearly and repeat it. Seriously, REPEAT IT every month for the next year.
SOML1: One of the people who helped me greatly was only an acquaintance but his approach was what I needed and we are now very close friends. If you care about a person and want to help, communicate it. Don’t underestimate what you have to offer.
SOML2: Even if friends had a reason to not be available for me (work, wedding anniversary, birthday), it never felt as important as the grief I was feeling. I was always disappointed/sad/mad/feeling alone when they didn’t show up. I couldn’t help it.
Hugs are the best
When you see the emotions bubbling up, go in for a big hug. Expect snot on your shirt. Keep tissues in your pockets.
SOML3: I snot a lot when I cry, it’s a snot waterfall.
Be aware of compartmentalizing
When going through trauma or any type of difficult event, a person needs to compartmentalize to get through the day. I felt like some people were judging me for not spending months stuck to my bed crying. I was still laughing and doing stupid things with friends. Still, many nights, I cried myself to sleep and cried waking up knowing that I had to face another day. Two years later, I’m still dealing with periods of intense grief.
It’s not because someone acts okay that they are, so be careful about loosening up the support too soon.
SOML4: It’s been over 2 years and I still have symptoms of PTSD. I don’t know if they will ever go away. Nightmares, flashbacks, overwhelming fear in specific situations, heart pounding, chest tightening up.
SOML5: My friend would send me pictures of Devon Sawa and eventually we sent each other pictures of our feet with speech bubbles saying silly stuff. It was really stupid but it made me laugh.
Give the space for the person to mention or not mention what they are going through
Sometimes, I needed to get my mind off things. Other times, I needed to talk about it but didn’t know how to bring up the subject. Remember that, in this article, I’m talking about something that was devastating, traumatic for your friend. This means that the emotions are overwhelming and dark and you don’t want to be the one bringing that to the surface.
You can say something like this:
“ I’m not gonna mention you know what, but if you want to talk about it, mention it anytime”…and immediately change the subject.
I like using safe words to express needs or feelings. Whatever the word (or emoji) is, you can assign one for different circumstances. Here are some examples:
- Tulip for when I want to talk about it but need some silence to gather my thoughts
- Crocodile for when a conversation is triggering and I need you to switch to another subject immediately;
- A carrot emoji if I’m feeling especially sad this week and simply want you to know and send me stupid memes and videos to cheer me up;
- Rain for instances when one needs to share something but fears the other person’s reaction.
Honestly though, I’d keep it to 2 max. I’ve suggested safe words a few times. I haven’t used them that much but it feels good to know that they exist.
SOML6: My lovely sister is the type to say stuff like “Are you feeling sad today because it’s around the time X happened?” I felt super annoyed every time and for some reason it took me 2 years to tell her. That’s on me.
SOML7: For grief specifically though, I find that it feels really good when people around me speak about the deceased and the good memories they have of them without mentioning the events leading up to their passing.
Minimize the mental load when offering support
I understand the “if you need anything, let me know”, but really it’s empty words and adds a mental load on the person. And let’s say the person does ask for something and you can’t do it? I never replied to that type of offer because I knew I’d just be setting myself up for disappointment, a feeling that would plunge me further into darkness. Figure out what you are willing to do and suggest it clearly. You can easily find ideas on the internet.
- “I wanna make food for you. If you have specific things you like, you can ask for them. If not, I’ll bring you food next week. Don’t worry about your food restrictions, I contacted your sister already.”
- “I am available these days to babysit your kids if you need a break.”
This also applies to when you want to see the person. Instead of asking “what do you feel like doing?”, you can suggest something specific like so:
- “Hey Laura, I’m thinking that I can come over with Indian food and we can watch a movie. Does that sound good? We can do something else no problem if you’re not feeling it that day.”
- “You free for a moped ride right now?”
- “Let’s go to the amusement park.”
Keep your guilt and excuses to a minimum
There are times when you won’t be able to show up because you have other priorities. There are times when you’ll say the wrong thing. There are years when you’ll forget about that important date. Apologize but don’t over do it and don’t expect a big answer. The person has no energy to deal with that. Don’t make this about you. If you need to express just how horrible you feel, find someone else to do it with.
Careful not to judge and think twice before giving advice
Unless the person is your life partner or someone you live with, you have a very limited view of the many coping mechanisms the person is using to stay sane so don’t judge.
Some people tried giving me advice and it made me want to see them less. Unless you have been through something very similar to what the person is going through, your advice/life knowledge will sound judgemental and most likely be inappropriate. Don’t try to fix anything, concentrate on giving genuine support. I know it’s hard because you’re worried and want the person to get better as soon as possible. Be patient.
SOML8: The friendship that didn’t survive my grief was with a person who is a mental health professional. She failed at being a friend with her over-confident diagnosis aka judgement.
Be reliable and trustworthy
Just be on time, don’t cancel, don’t be flaky. This is not the time to be wishy washy, I might have work to do, depends on this or that, maybe I can, maybe I can’t bulls**t. The person needs to feel as secure as possible and that uncertainty does the opposite. I was losing my mind, my life had been turned upside down and I didn’t know what I could hold on to. Don’t create expectations if you can’t commit.
These are some of the negative thoughts I was having regarding friends:
- “My friend doesn’t care enough to show up on time.”
- “I’m alone and can’t rely on anyone.”
- “Everyone’s lives go on and I’m being left behind”
- “Nothing is safe, no relationship is safe and I don’t want to take another step.”
I felt unloved when having those thoughts…and loneliness, hopelessness, frustration, sadness, desperation.
SOML9: On the anniversary of Koko’s death, a friend told me she was on her way to my place. She decided to go get flowers and showed up almost 2 hours later. That extra hour and a half felt long as hell. On top of being completely drained from grief and loneliness, I was pissed. Her presence was needed, flowers were not.
Keep reaching out, needing them and inviting them
In the past two years, even if I didn’t want to socialize, I still wanted to be needed and invited…without the pressure of showing up. Sometimes I answered and other times I didn’t. It was nice to have those options available. It helped in feeling less alone. Eventually, when I started feeling better, I answered. I’m still in the process of opening myself up. My circle is getting bigger and bigger.
SOML10: I only got back in touch with a couple of acquaintances recently. This means that they spent the last 2 years reaching out and getting the silent treatment. Every time they’d invite me to their party, event, birthday, I felt like they were saying: “I still think and care about you. Show up when you’re ready.”
SOML11: I got asked to babysit a few of times and I did.
Prepare the field…or not?
I had a lot of anxiety about social events. I was afraid of people asking triggering questions. It was hard to climb out of darkness once I was in it. This is tricky because I know that we all have different levels of what we want to keep private. I’m just going to share this anecdote and I’ll let you decide what to do with it.
SOML12: I went to the birthday party of a close friend. There were dozens of people. I still felt fragile so when I saw my friend’s good friend, I thought: “I’ll go talk to her. She probably knows and I’ll be safe.” Turns out she asked me about my boyfriend (who had died). I laughed nervously, told her, she was shocked, I left to make myself a plate of food and sat alone on the floor eating. I hated that night.
Watch out for…
Watch out for emotional blackmail. This situation will bring out the best and worst in people. There is the risk of the person using it to manipulate and guilt you into doing something. Also, physical and mental abuse are never acceptable.
SOML13: In the event of my boyfriend’s death, someone used their grief to manipulate people and gain the most out of the situation.
Don’t forget to take care of yourself
Your friendship, for at least a year, won’t be 50/50. Relationships never are. There are periods when it’s one’s turn to be needing more, then it’s the other person’s turn and hopefully it balances out in the long run. In the context of your friend having gone through a devastating event, the relationship will be focused on them and your expectations should be lowered. For how long is this acceptable? A year, two years, three years? It depends, you’ll have to gage.
There can be periods in any relationship during which both can only give 10% and this means you won’t be able to support each other. The relationship can survive that but sometimes it doesn’t. Take the time to think about what you are able and willing to do. Your life does not solely revolve around your friend and you also need to take care of your mental health and your personal life.
SOML14: I have a long-term friend who only reached out to me over a year following my traumatic event. He was going through his own devastating event and couldn’t handle mine on top of it. I didn’t ask to know what his reason was. I decided to trust and forgive him. We’re back to being friends as if nothing happened.
If you’re not sure about any of my suggestions, you can straight up send this article to your friend and ask “does any of this work for you?” They can copy-paste what does and doesn’t. It’s minimal effort. They might not have the mental energy to do it, and that’s fine because you showed that you love them and are proactive about giving your support.
SOML15: I love you sister, parents, nieces, Goddaughter, cousins, ex in-laws and friends. I’m doing my best to keep going.