OK, so you’ve heard my story, and I’ve given you my advice for what I think helps make life better. But let’s say your life is awesome, but a friend is struggling. Here’s what I would have really, really wanted from a friend during my struggles. By the way, if you are/were my friend during this time, this is NOT a criticism—it’s just a wish list. No offense, mkay? Y’all were wonderful.
1. Ask THEM what’s going on. Nothing, and I mean NOTHING irritated, hurt, and infuriated me more than friends who had heard things, thought they knew what was happening, had seen my MySpace or talked to my ex and assumed they were aware of the situation. Respect your friend enough to ask them what’s really happening, from their point of view.
2. LISTEN. Don’t talk. Don’t assume you know how they’re feeling. Ask them, and then be prepared to listen. If they cry, let them. If they’re pissed, let them be pissed. But above all, just be there to hear what they are saying.
3. Don’t walk on eggshells. It hurt me so deeply when I found out that other friends were dealing with their own serious stuff but didn’t tell me because they were afraid I couldn’t handle it. Being left out of the loop was hard, and no one wants to feel as if their friends view them as weak. There’s a time and a place. Ask your struggling friend when you can talk with them and let them know that you have something serious you want to share. Then, share, be honest and let them help you to the best of their current ability.
4. Be thoughtful. The morning my ex moved out, two girlfriends called me, picked me up and took me to the beach. Sure, it was freezing cold, but we went for the day, drove around, read books under blankets, took pictures, looked at a lighthouse and ate junk food. It was one of my best experiences ever, and it meant so much that they took time out of their schedule to get me away from something that was obviously going to be upsetting for me. My mom is one of the most thoughtful people I know and she would get me treats, take me to lunch or do other things just to spoil me. Look for opportunities to be encouraging and then do it.
5. Have grace. I was an exceptionally crappy friend for awhile—very bitter, angry and sad and not too fun to be around. Instead of slamming your friend, confronting them on their behavior or ignoring them, try to have patience. Set boundaries, and if they’re mean and hurtful regularly, call them on it. But if they don’t want to go to the movies one night or they snap at you, give them a break. If they cry, have too much wine or act foolishly, don’t appear shocked or annoyed. Roll with it, and extend kindness.
6. Keep your mouth shut. I know it’s kind of a good rule of thumb to have anyway, but I really, really hated it when I’d share something with Girl A, only to have Girl B say they’d already heard what I was going to share. Even worse, private information is often accidentally revealed. Keep the drama to a minimum, and just be quiet. Also, avoid spreading what’s going on. I spent so much time crying over the fact that people I loved and trusted were telling everyone who’d listen that I was divorcing. I think that most crisis’ are private. I didn’t want everyone knowing right away and some people took it upon themselves to share it. Remember, you never know what path you’ll be walking in life. It could be you having a hard time next. Think about how you’d feel if YOU were the subject of the gossip train. Feels pretty crappy.
7. Don’t judge. One of the hardest things I dealt with were friends who were “anti-divorce” or felt that I wasn’t doing my best at things. Other friends judged the fact that I dated in a time frame that felt soon to them. I think the general rule is to not offer unsolicited advice. And unless your friend is doing something to hurt themselves or someone else, than don’t judge. I think everyone goes a little crazy during a tough time. What I appreciated most were those friends who would accompany me to the bar, listen to the stories of the weirdos I dated and hear me out when I needed to talk about my life without feeling like my every move was being analyzed and chastised silently.
8. Don’t be merry sunshine OR one-up them. The two responses I hated most: “It’s not so bad! At least you have your health!” and “Oh, you think your life is hard? One time, I had to go through ________________!” Let me have my pity party. I know I have my health. I know we’ve all had our bad times. But let me have my time, sans false cheer and competition. If I’m trusting you enough to talk, I want to talk. Selfish? Maybe. Honest? You bet. I realize this contradicts suggestion #3, but I think we all know the difference between sharing what’s going on and trying to compete for “who’s life is the worst.” Be sensitive.
9. Point to the good. I had many people—my parents, my grandparents, and my closest friends, hug me and assure me that it really would be okay. They were right, of course. Don’t be fake about it, but remind them to have perspective and that yep, it’s all gonna be fine.
UPDATED: A reader left this as a comment and I think it’s incredibly true and wise and I wish I’d thought to mention it:
I’d like to add one more–Don’t disappear. Three of the people I treasured most did not speak to me for months after I told them what was going on, and their abandonment just added one more shitty thing to the pile. If you don’t know how to approach a friend going through a very difficult time, ASK. Don’t evaporate. It’s true what they say. You really do learn who your true friends are when you go through something like this–and it’s often not who you’d expect.