Here are the 10 most important ways to help your friend through a traumatic life event, from Michaela Haas, author of Bouncing Forward.
Chuck the shoulda-coulda-woulda
Eliminate the words “you should” from your vocabulary. As in: “You shouldn’t take this so heavily.” “You should be over this by now.” “You should go out more.” Zip your mouth and don’t say any of these platitudes.
Instead say, “I love you.” As in: unconditionally. Rinse and repeat.
Take the back seat
Since so many people are at a loss for words when visiting with a friend in crisis, I want to share this genius advice I have found incredibly helpful. When clinical psychologist Susan Silk had breast cancer and “heard a lot of lame remarks,” she developed the “Ring Theory of Kvetching.” Simply put: Draw a circle, the center ring. In it, write the name of the person at the center of the current trauma. Then draw larger circles around the first one, and write in them the names of people closest to the trauma. “In each larger ring put the next closest people. Parents and children before more distant relatives. Intimate friends in smaller rings, less intimate friends in larger ones.” This is the Kvetching Order. “Here are the rules. If you’re going to open your mouth, ask yourself if what you are about to say is likely to provide comfort and support. If it isn’t, don’t say it. If you want to scream or cry or complain, if you want to tell someone how shocked you are or how icky you feel, or whine about how it reminds you of all the terrible things that have happened to you lately, that’s fine. It’s a perfectly normal response. Just do it to someone in a bigger ring. Comfort IN, dump OUT. Don’t just avoid dumping into the center ring, avoid dumping into any ring smaller than your own… It works for all kinds of crises: medical, legal, financial, romantic, even existential. And don’t worry. You’ll get your turn in the center ring. You can count on that.”
Related: “How Not to Say the Wrong Thing”
Accept. Don’t judge
Allow your friend to express her feelings honestly. Trauma conversations might be unpleasant, impolite, and harrowing to hear. My friend, cancer survivor Alain Beauregard, realized that “if I wanted to heal I needed to connect with my own reality of what I was really feeling, deep down underneath.” Many trauma survivors find it extremely helpful to express their true feelings, and how friends and family respond to it is crucial. “When you see me crying,” Alain told his family, “Don’t try to console me. Don’t! The most precious gift is just to give me that space to go through whatever I have to go through, without trying to change my mind or my situation. It was part of my healing, a way of reconciliation. I had to express it, accept it, and say ‘yes’ to it.”
Listen with all your heart
Silence is okay. Nothing irks trauma survivors more than platitudes such as, “You’re gonna be fine,” or “Who knows what it is good for?” This might be factually true, but will likely only cause resentment. When someone is drowning, they need a lifeline, not a swimming lesson. So, just listen, not just with your ears, but with all your heart. The greatest support is simply to be there for your friend. Fully. Create a safe space. Be here. Not over there, but right here.
Sit together, breathe together
Loving kindness meditation has proven to lessen pain and depression. Many people think that meditation means suppressing your thoughts, but that would be impossible. What it means is to be present with whatever arises and stay mindful with your breath. When you don’t know what to say or do, breathe loving kindness. With each inbreath, breathe the thought “May you be free from suffering and the causes of suffering.” With each outbreath, breathe out loving kindness, “May you enjoy happiness and the causes of happiness.” It is helpful to train in loving kindness meditation when the seas are smooth so that we have this powerful tool available when the going gets tough. In my book Bouncing Forward: Transforming Bad Breaks into Breakthroughs I offer a guide to tried and true-strategies survivors and their friends have found helpful, including meditation.
Reach out for support
Scout for allies. Is there a community that can help you and your friend? A survivor group? A church? In recovering from a disaster, nobody does it alone. Our resilience is only as strong as our support group, so we need to reach out and find our tribe. Help your friend by researching support groups and even accompany them the first time if they want to.
Recharge your own batteries
You have thrown a life line and now you hold onto the other end. Don’t let go. But you can and need to take breaks. When the primary caregiver burns out, everyone suffers. While your friend is your priority right now, you still need to be aware of your own energy level and recharge your own batteries.
Don’t say: “Call me if you need something.” They likely won’t.
Be patient. Don’t fade away
Unless your friend has the kind of short-term misery that will dissolve quickly (otherwise known as “the flu”), prepare yourself to be in it for the long haul. When someone falls ill or when an earthquake strikes a country, there will likely be an initial outpouring of goodwill (though rarely ever enough), followed by an eagerness to return to “normal” ASAP. The phenomenon of deteriorating support is well-known in both individual and communal tragedies. Just ask the people of Haiti or my sister-in-law Tami. “Our culture is grief illiterate,” Tami realized when she was grieving the death of her only child. “In other cultures there are rituals; you are allowed to cry and scream and wail. But in our hurry-up-and-get-over-it-society, you get three days of bereavement leave when anyone dies. Three days! Then you are supposed to get on with it.” Be there for your friend three months, three years, and three decades later.
You mustn’t tell your friend to feel differently, but you can shine a light and bring flowers. Cook lasagna. Mow the lawn. Point out how delicious the bougainvilleas smell. Especially when we live through hardship, inviting positivity might be the last thing on our minds, but we likely have to take active steps to counteract the bleak.
After her devastating shooting in 2011, the joy of former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords has become singing, and her favorite song is U2’s “Beautiful Day,” a song about someone who lost everything and yet appreciates the beauty of his surroundings.
You can gently encourage your friend to start a gratitude journal, to help them notice the many things to be grateful for. Don’t let that beautiful day get away.