When someone you care about is going through a tough day or a tough season, for example, they have the flu, or their kid is cranky, or they feel burned out and bedraggled, or their cheese is falling off of their cracker, it can be hard to simply hold space without minimizing, advising, using silence, or assuming they are fine.
Or maybe they are going through something more traumatic - a death, a divorce, an unexpected home or office move, an injury or serious illness, surgery, empty nest, a job loss, a pet loss, or dealing with a mental illness like depression or anxiety.
Again, it can be difficult to know how to be supportive.
Here are some healthy ways to extend support:
1. Ask or text if you can do something specific, example:
"Next week I have Thursday and Sunday off, I know you've been dealing with a lot right now and you are important to me. May I come by at a time that is best for you and run an errand, bring by a meal, walk the dogs, take you to an appointment, clean your bathroom for you? Or do you just want to sit and chat?"
2. Listen without judgement or offering advise (unless asked), example:
"It's OK to feel what you feel, I am hear to listen because I care for you."
3. Reflect with empathy, example:
"I know your heart is hurting, and I love you and am here for you. I'm not going to disappear."
4. If the person apologies for "venting" or repeating their hurt:
"You can repeat this as often as you need, your feelings matter to me, and sometimes it takes a few times to process through all of the pain."
5. If you are feeling overwhelmed by their grief, hurt, fear, anger, or their what they need feels overwhelming to you, it is OK to make helpful suggestions. For example:
"I love you and I see you are struggling, I am here for you, I want to be a good listener. And, I wonder if some extra support would be helpful too. Have you considered (therapy, seeing a doctor, discussing with this person, hiring someone, reading this book, how can I help?)."
6. If you are not located near your loved one, a weekly text, a monthly call, an email, sending something (a dog walking gift card, a meal, a book, or just a card) can mean the world to a person who is going through a difficult time. Even just a DM on Facebook asking how they are doing is a gift.
7. Check in with the primary caregivers. The caregivers are going through a lot too and are likely feeling exhausted, under supported, and needing some kind words, or a little break to step away. It hurt me to see how no one checked in with my caregivers during a challenging season of healing from a traumatic ankle and foot injury.
8. Remember that some people hesitate to reach out for help, even with their nearest and dearest, because they were taught in their family of origins that you need to “suck it up”, or “don’t be a burden” or “hurting people are a hinderance” or “you must be happy to be loved” or “never show weakness” or “if you are struggling, people won't show up” - don’t assume your friends or loved ones (especially the “strong” ones) don’t need support just because they are not reaching out. That is not their job, FYI. Their job is to heal.
And here is what is never helpful:
"At least you didn't need surgery!"
"At least you have…" (a car, a spouse, a job, a house, etc.)
"That person has it so much worse than you!"
"You are strong, you'll get through this."
"You've gone through worse and survived."
"Maybe if you would have done this, that would not have happened."
"You sure seem negative these days. Try to focus on the positive."
"I'll come by next week" (and then not following through)
"I'll come by and keep you company" (and then talking for hours about yourself, your issues, your stuff).
"If you focus on the bad, you will only attract the bad."
"If you are going to be a downer, you should just stay home."
"Let me tell you all about why my situation is worse."
“Wow, are you STILL sick/healing/sad?”
"I'm here if you need me" (Note: it can be challenging for most people to reach out for help)
"I didn't call, text, check in regularly, or offer to do anything because I figured you were fine" (or others were helping, or you'd ask if you needed something).
"You're such a happy person, I didn't think you needed help!"
"Just pray it away."
”That doesn’t sound/look/seem so bad.”
”Isn’t it time to move on now?”
"If you had more faith, and/or trusted God, this wouldn't happen."
Quoting scriptures in a shaming way.
"This is happening for a reason, to teach you something."
"I thought you'd contact me if you needed me." (Really? c'mon now).
”What is your address, I want to send you something” (and then not following through)
Life and trauma happens to all of us.
We only have so much time in a day to give to others - even our nearest and dearest.
No one is exempt from life's challenges.
Even the strongest people need support.
A simple text, "I'm thinking of you today" can mean so much.
And silence is one of the loudest messages.
It takes less than 10 seconds to send a text.
• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •
Maybe you are reading this nodding your head because you're going through a tough season. If so, I understand.
Or maybe you're reading this thinking of someone you love who is going through a trauma. If so, I understand.
Or maybe you are reading this and feel validated and relieved. If so, I understand.
Or maybe you are reading this and remembering when you've said unhelpful things. If so, I understand, I've said unhelpful things before too.
Or maybe you are reading this and cringing inside because you forgot about your loved ones caregivers. If so, I understand, I’ve forgotten the caregivers too.
Or maybe you're reading this thinking of someone you've neglected or let down who has been there for you. If so, I understand, I've let people down that I love unintentionally too. Remember, it's never to late to own that, make an amends, and do better.
A simple, "Hey, I'm sorry I haven't been a better friend (husband, wife, daughter, son, sister, etc.) while you've been struggling. I've been overwhelmed, but that is no excuse for my silence. I love you. May I step up and do something now? Perhaps a visit, or may I send a little goodie, or run an errand? I want you to know that I love you and I am sorry for my silence."
Or maybe you are reading this and thinking, "But I've been going through a lot too. How can I take care of myself and let my loved on know I care for them but I just don't have enough gas in my emotional tank for me AND for them?" Just let them know that (they are not mind readers, and may mistake your silence for a lack of care). Perhaps text or email them something like,
"I wanted to text you to let you know I love you, I am holding healing thoughts for you (or praying for you). Currently I am dealing with some difficulties as well and I'm not able to extend what I wish I could to you. I realize that my silence may have hurt you and if it has, I am sorry and I hope you will forgive me and know that it is not a reflection of my love for you. I hope you'll understand, and know that while you are healing/getting through this, I am going to be thinking of you and will check in with a text at least once a month to let you know I love you, starting with this text: I love you!"
A Note on the Chronically Upset or Energy Vampires...
We all know folks who, much like Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh, seem to constantly be going through one “bad” thing after the next. Their daily lives seem to reflect this line from a country song, “If it weren’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all, gloom, despair and agony on me.”
[Side note to therapists reading this: I am not referring to our clinical clients who we support in our therapy roles, and who we hold unconditional positive regard for as they work through their challenges].
It can be especially difficult to be there for those people in our personal lives we think of as the “Debbie Downers” or “Poor Me Petes.” I have found myself less than patient, gritting my teeth, or rolling my eyes listening to a friends latest weekly difficulty, or reading their latest daily gripe on Facebook. Let’s face it, it is difficult to be patient and loving with these folks at times.
And, frankly, because I am a therapist, I find that new friends sometimes think that I am more than happy to have them lean on me anytime they need support. However, as most therapists will agree, we healers are fallible and must reserve our energy for our work and our clinical patients in order to avoid a very real phenomena that therapists contend with called, “Compassion Fatigue.” It is a bit like an athlete, they cannot be constantly working out and playing their sport every minute of every day. Their bodies need to rest and heal. Thus, I don’t have the gas in my tank to give hours of listening to loved ones, nor do I have a reservoir of empathy on tap. I can only extend what I am able to on my time out of the clinical space.
However, these chronically unhappy folks in our personal lives also need a little loving kindness as well (and good boundaries). Again, our job is not to let energy vampire friends and family members suck the life out of us, but instead, to remember that they are in pain as well, sometimes dealing with mental illness, or chronic pain, or unresolved trauma, or fear, and to hold space for their challenges with boundaries, and extend compassion when we are able to do so.
Also, good to remember that energy vamps vs. a friend or family member going through a difficult chapter, are very different situations.
Do your best, that is enough
In closing, we cannot be all things to all people. That is not what healthy love and balanced care is about. And trying to give when we are depleted doesn't help anyone.
But we can offer a little loving energy now and then, even if we are going through a challenging time. Sending a text that says, "I love you. You matter to me. I am thinking of you today" only takes a second, but can do so much for your loved one, and for you as well.
I hope this helps offer a few supportive ideas about how to extend care and support in very simple ways to those you love (and their caregivers) when they are going through a challenging day or chapter.
We are all learning and growing and most of us are trying to do our imperfect best. No shame in your game! Feel free to share in the comments below…