It can be tough to know exactly what to do when a friend is going through a crisis. Whether they’re going through a breakup, a death in their family, a health issue, or something else entirely, you’ll want to give them as much support as possible. But the right words don’t always come to mind. Even when you’re trying to help, it can feel like you’re getting it all wrong.
It’s important not to judge yourself for being a bit unsure of what to say in these moments. “It can often feel intimidating or uncomfortable,” Allie Friedmann, LCSW, a licensed clinical social worker and therapist, tells Bustle. People can isolate themselves during tough times, Friedmann says, or cope differently than you might have predicated, which further complicates the issue.
“When trying to help a friend, it is important to meet that friend where [they are],” Friedmann says. “You may want to solve the problem or want your friend’s negative feelings to go away, but if [they are] not ready, then your efforts could feel like an attack or dismissal, rather than supportive.”
Here’s how to support a friend going through a difficult time, according to experts.
If you don’t know what to do or say, start by hanging out. “Just being there, without expectation or distraction, means a lot,” Rev. Connie L. Habash, MA, LMFT, a licensed marriage and family therapist, tells Bustle. “Many people don’t take the time to simply be present with each other, even if it’s just washing dishes together, taking a walk, or hanging out on the couch.”
It’s so simple yet so effective. Give them your attention, Habash says, and they will feel valued, loved, and cared for.
If you’re trying to give advice and coming up empty, that’s actually OK. “When someone we love is going through pain and sorrow, we feel pressure to have to say something, to come up with a way to make them feel better,” Habash says. But often it’s best to just listen and let them express themselves.
“They need to know that you can tolerate being with them in their pain, and that someone understands what they’re going through,” Habash says.
In the same vein, resist the urge to offer advice or find solutions to their problems, Friedmann says, unless they want that.
“Listen first, with curiosity and without judgment,” she suggests. “It is uncomfortable to sit with people’s negative emotions, but offering solutions without being asked can often feel like you are dismissing [their] feelings, rather than creating a space for them to experience what it is that’s hurting them.”
Not to mention, things like breakups and deaths can’t be fixed. “Showing we care enough to listen without an agenda,” Friedmann says, “is how we can support friends going through these experiences.”
One way to respond without offering advice is by validating their feelings. If they tell you about their problem and say they’re scared, Friedmann says, try responding with, “That is so hard and scary. It makes so much sense why you feel this way given what’s going on. I’m here to listen.”
There are lots of ways you can be a better listener to your friend. Try reflecting back what’s been said by offering a quick recap of what they’ve shared so far, in a natural way. “Reflection and summary help convey to your friend that you are both listening and hearing what [they are] saying,” Friedmann says.
There’s lots of advice out there that sounds good but isn’t actually very helpful, which is why it’s often best to simply say, “I don’t know what to say” if you’re at a loss, Salina Schmidgall, M.Ed, PLPC, NCC, a national certified counselor, tells Bustle.
It’s refreshing and better than falling back on a tired cliché like, “There are plenty of fish in the sea” or “It’s all going to be OK,” Schmidgall says.
If your friend is busy dealing with a crisis, offering to help with their everyday chores can come as a huge relief.
“Doing the laundry or running to the grocery store for [them] may ease up their stress and make it easier to deal with their troubles,” Habash says. “It will also convey how much you care about them.” Send a quick text and see if they need anything, or choose a time to stop by with a few grocery staples. It’s a good way to show you care.
If you’re unsure how to support a friend, ask what they’d prefer.
“Oftentimes when we help a friend who is going through a crisis […] we tend to care and support them in a way that we would want to be cared for and supported,” Dr. Holly N. Sawyer, PhD, MS, LPC, NCC, CAADC, a licensed psychotherapist with Life First Therapy, LLC, tells Bustle. But they may want something entirely different.
While you may need to vent and cry, they may crave a little time alone, or vice versa. Focus on who your friend is as a person, and cater your response to them. If they aren’t sure what they need, it’s best not to force them to do something, even if it seems like it would help. Being there is enough, Sawyer says.
If you haven’t heard from your friend, don’t hesitate to send a text to find out how they are. And keep doing so, possibly even longer than seems necessary.
“We shouldn’t be scared to check in with our friend and simply ask if they want to talk about it or not,” Vicki Smith, LPC, a licensed professional counselor and psychotherapist, tells Bustle. Sometimes people need to talk about their feelings for months, Smith says.
But don’t push them to talk if they don’t want to. “If we push, the person goes into their shell like a turtle or snaps at us to back off,” Smith says. “That is simply a signal they aren’t ready. But it doesn’t hurt to keep showing them you are there when they are ready.”