When Helping Friends Who Hurt

May 20, 2013

blurred trees by Justin Hackworth

By Amy Hackworth. Image by Justin Hackworth.

There are moments when I see a friend in need and I can rush to her side with the perfect offering of support and care. I feel useful and deeply satisfied when I know I’ve been just the friend someone needed me to be.

More often, though, I’m unsure of how to help a friend who’s hurting. I wish I had a delicious dinner to take her, or the perfect bit of encouragement to offer. My insistence on “just the right thing” sometimes, sadly, means I do nothing (still working on my tendency toward overthinking).

I’m slow to remember that what helps me most when I’m hurting is usually simple — just feeling loved, listened to, cared about. I’m slow to remember that’s what my friends need most from me. My friend Melody recently shared this short piece from the L.A. Times and it’s been such a great reminder that our listening ears (ok, and maybe our pot roasts) have such power to help our hurting friends.


The overall concept is to support our sick, sad, or hurting friends by addressing their needs, and not ours, in the middle of their crises. If we are shaken or shocked by a friend’s condition, it’s not helpful to tell her about it. Instead, authors Susan Silk and Barry Goldman suggest finding someone else to tell about it, someone further from the trauma. They also suggest keeping our advice to ourselves, and especially our stories of the almost-as-bad thing that happened to us that one time. (This part can be particularly hard, especially when you have a really good story.)

“Listening is often more helpful than talking,” they write. But talking is often so much easier than listening! We might feel obligated to offer advice, or share something we have learned, or maybe we just want to feel validated. Consider this instruction: “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.”

Easier said than done? What do you think? If you’re the comforting friend, how do you decide when to offer advice and when to offer a listening ear? Have you ever tried to say the right thing, but somehow added stress instead of comfort (I’m sure we all have!)? Or, have you ever been offered comforting words that stayed with you? Please share!

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{ 27 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Annabel Vita May 20, 2013 at 7:19 am

As someone who gets herself tangled up trying to do the right thing, I can relate to this. I recently read this article about how to speak to people with cancer http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2012/apr/18/10-things-not-say-when-ill – but the main thing I took away from it isthe last paragraph:
If you recognise things that you have said or done yourself within this list, don’t feel bad about it, at all. I most certainly have, and I’ve said and done much, much worse too; it took being on the receiving end before I realised what it could feel like. The thing is this: giant illness is a time of great intensity, and even the most cack-handed expressions of support or love are better than a smack in the face with a wet tea-towel. People feel helpless when they see that their friend is suffering. Sometimes – often – they say the wrong thing. But they are there, doing the best that they can, at a terrible, abject time. That’s the most important thing of all. I look back on those grisly moments of ineptitude and clumsiness with exasperated amusement and tender, despairing, deep, deep fondness. The great lesson I learned from having cancer, was how splendid my friends were, whatever their odd little longueurs. They all, in their different ways, let me know that they loved me, and that is the most helpful thing of all. I’m so lucky to have them.
It is much more important to try and help than get tangled up in doubt about what is best and end up doing nothing!
(Here was some response to that article http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2012/apr/22/serious-illness-things-people-say)

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2 Amy Hackworth May 20, 2013 at 10:04 am

Annabel, thank you so much for your insightful comment. I love that you recognize your friends’ love, even when they bumbled. And that you forgive yourself for your own blunders. And you’re encouragement that something is better than nothing.

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3 PARIS BEE kids blog May 20, 2013 at 7:38 am

I agree, listening is the most important kind of comfort you can offer a friend in distress. Sometimes it’s hard, but your friend will appreciate it all the more…

xoxo PARIS BEE kids blog

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4 Tanya May 20, 2013 at 8:13 am

As someone who’s been on both sides of tough times, I have come to realize that what you do need to entirely depend on the kind of person the hurting one is.
For example, I’m the kind of person to gather as much info, as much advice, as much similar situations, so that I can stew in all that info and distill something out of it that is comforting and helpful. A friend of mind just wants to listen to someone talk about something garden-related, even if it’s silly and minute. A yet another friend of mine needs to word-vomit and scream, so I take her on car rides when she needs it, and she screams it out while I drive.
The important part of being a friend, for me, is to pay attention to my friends when they are doing well, because when they are not, they are not in a position to tell you what they need, they are too busy hurting. So, while we may not want to think that someday we will need comfort or to do the comforting, it’s such a good habit to have to learn to pay attention to our friends and to figure out what makes them feel better.
When my friend was diagnosed with cancer, our circle did a lot of artwork for her that she could place around her work area and at home, and that made her feel better. We did not cook much for her, because she had it covered by her dad and cousin, who cook very specific dishes that she likes, so, if we did, we would have put her in a weird position of feeling obligated without actually enjoying the food.

Having said that, if you really don’t know what you should do, I find that a direct, “How can I be useful?” or “What do you need right now?” can give the other person a way to get what they need. Sometimes I will be more specific and ask “Do you want me to listen, talk or do something?”
And never underestimate the power of a hug. Sometime it’s all it takes, and all you can do.

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5 Amy Hackworth May 20, 2013 at 10:31 am

Tanya, I love your examples of providing what your friends need because you know their needs. Very cool. And such good questions, too. Thanks for sharing.

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6 michelle May 23, 2013 at 8:37 pm

I love the question “do you want me to listen, talk or do something?” so much better than the open ended “let me know if I can help.” Thank you for a much better response. That sentence will help me moving forward.

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7 Tanya May 20, 2013 at 8:15 am

also, thank you for this post (sorry, forgot to say this in the beginning my my ramble) ^_^
It’s important to be reminded of these things!

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8 Margo, Thrift at Home May 20, 2013 at 8:58 am

This is an excellent post with helpful, concrete advice. Most of us have good intentions but just don’t know specifically what to do! I am trying to be better at doing SOMETHING instead of waiting for the perfect idea/thing, as you noted.

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9 Amy Hackworth May 20, 2013 at 10:10 am

Me, too, Margo!

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10 Koseli Cummings May 20, 2013 at 9:26 am

Amy, do you have specific phrases that you use? I’ve adopted, “I’m so sorry for your loss.”, “We’re praying for you.”, “We’re thinking about you.” I just want to say the right thing but what I’ve noticed is that it’s usually by saying nothing but a simple phrase, physical affection and written cards, and lots of listening, And no advice, even and especially if I think I’ve gone through the same thing.

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11 Amy Hackworth May 20, 2013 at 10:29 am

Koseli, I agree that those phrases are helpful. I’m learning that sometimes that’s all I can say that will make a difference, and that my thoughts and prayers for friends really matter.

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12 Tricia May 20, 2013 at 10:09 am

Listening without giving advice seems to be the most helpful thing in my experience having gone through some difficult circumstances. It feels like that is a skill that has disappeared a bit these days. Sometimes it seems everyone is so busy broadcasting through Facebook/twitter/blogs that no one can take a moment to listen.

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13 Amy Hackworth May 20, 2013 at 10:30 am

I think it’s so important, too, Tricia, and a good listener is a treasure.

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14 Jenna May 20, 2013 at 10:25 am

This post is especially pertinent since it is Mental Healthy Month. Thank you for sharing. It can be difficult to know when to stay silent and when to speak up. Sometimes a hug is the best support :)

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15 aimee @ smiling mama May 20, 2013 at 10:36 am

I read a quote once that went something like this, “The smallest act of kindness is better than the grandest intention.” So even if I can’t think of the best, most perfect thing to do for a friend, I can do something small and that is a wonderful thing.

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16 Amy Hackworth May 20, 2013 at 10:57 am

Love this, Aimee. This one’s a keeper for sure. I will think of this often!

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17 Heidi May 20, 2013 at 12:48 pm

Too often I fall into the “do nothing” category for fear of saying the wrong thing. Thanks for reminding me I don’t need to swoop in and solve problems, give great advice or even be able to relate to what a friend is hurting from. A simple card, hug or kind gesture can convey all the right things–love, support and friendship.

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18 Elisabeth May 20, 2013 at 1:28 pm

I have found that the listening route is often the best way to go. This is even true when a friend is distressed about something smaller or is unsure about themselves or have regrets about something they’ve done. As far as when to give advice: I only give advice if I’m asked for it or if I feel that something really bad will happen if I don’t. I was recently told by a friend that I am really good at really paying attention to people- to truly listening (and remembering things) when I’m having a deep conversation. It was one of the best compliments I have ever received and it has really reinforced that listening and just giving people our full intention is so important. And guess what? It doesn’t take much to do that.

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19 Elisabeth May 20, 2013 at 1:29 pm

*attention, not intention, sorry!

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20 Christy@SweetandSavoring May 20, 2013 at 2:09 pm

What an invaluable topic. I’m sure we’ve all been both the comforter and the one in need of comfort, and who hasn’t found themselves lacking when trying to offer support?
The best time to offer advice is when the other person says something like ‘What do you think I should do?” or “I’d appreciate your input/feedback”. Otherwise, just listening and being supportive is what’s most important.
I like that this information- in the LA Times article, too- is applicable for friends who are hurting emotionally as well as physically. Another great discussion post!

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21 Carisa May 20, 2013 at 9:13 pm

Brilliant read once again, my friend! xo. C

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22 caroline May 20, 2013 at 10:52 pm

Very interresting and usefull.

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23 Kristie Wise May 21, 2013 at 10:47 am

Amy, thank you so much for this thoughtful and compassionate piece. Having to endure my own personal tragedy two years ago, I received the whole gamut of condolences, or in some cases lack of condolences. What I appreciated the most though were sayings like, “I don’t know what to say” or “there are no words”. These simple phrases gave me validation that what I was experiencing was tremendous and incomprehensible but that I had caring support in the shock and confusion of it all. In some cases someone’s eyes would alone tell me that they cared and words were rarely necessary. To be held by a friend or, at times, compassionate stranger when you feel broken is the greatest gift someone can give. Parents at my daughter’s co-op preschool at the time gathered one evening shortly after our loss and made a handmade paper flower bouquet to send to our house. This was one of the most touching gifts that I received and there were few words involved. I can still envision these parents and friends gathered together to weep for us and create this symbol of love with their hands. Two years later this momento still means so much to me and we have the flowers displayed in my daughter’s room. In my experience when someone is hurting, even if you don’t know what to do or so, saying just that is better than nothing at all.

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24 Bridget May 21, 2013 at 7:33 pm

Really, the best thing I’ve learned to say to others is “Please let me know what I can do to support you, whether that be something practical like a meal, helping you clean house, or watching the kids for a few hours…or something emotional, like listening, or simply not talking about it all all. I am here for you in whatever way you need me to be.”

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25 Whitney May 21, 2013 at 9:48 pm

Amy, thank you for this post – such an important issue for people to be thinking about. How do we comfort our friends?

Ditto times a million to Kristie’s comment above!

When my mother died suddenly and tragically last year, the best experiences I had were with those who could just BE with me in my sorrow and discomfort. Sometimes people say all the wrong things because they desperately want to make it better for you. It can be wildly uncomfortable to see someone in pain. I treasure the warrior hearts who were able to just be there with me. Validation, love, listening, true compassion – those are the things that helped the most. Never advice or even well-intentioned positive statements. Those were the worst. It was helpful to hear someone say, “I’m so very sorry. I love you. I hate that you are hurting.”

The experiences I’ve had since my mother’s death have taught me volumes about how to listen to someone else’s tragedy. It has nothing to do with YOU or what you can do for them. It has to do with THEM. Loving them. Validating them. Listening to them. It’s hard for us to do these things – but with practice it can come.

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26 Karen May 23, 2013 at 2:26 am

I also agree that comments acknowledging the severity of the issue are best (“I’m so sorry” or “I can’t imagine how you feel but I want to help in any way that I can”). I’ve also found touch to be very comforting (a hug or a rub on the back). As someone who is a month in on a major tragedy, I can see people already “back to business” but I’m still hurting. So, another piece of advice I have is to follow your friend’s lead even months after a loss. He or she may need support just as much six months later.

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27 Mika May 23, 2013 at 3:00 pm

My baby boy died last month, so I’ve had a lot of practice figuring out what things are most (and least) helpful to hear. I love getting notes, via text, mail, email, Facebook, etc., that let me know someone is thinking of me. I’m not the sort to ask for help so I actually appreciated having someone stop by unannounced with a meal ready to put in the oven. She ran a load of laundry and then took my older kids to her house for the afternoon.

By far what I like the most is having people tell me honestly that they are so sorry and that they don’t know what to say. That’s infinitely better than dancing around the subject or even avoiding talking to me at all. I’d much rather hear that a friend wishes she knew what to say than to not hear from her at all.

As a side note, I cringe whenever someone starts their intended-to-be-consoling remark with “At least…” It ends up feeling like they are trying to minimize my loss or suggest that I shouldn’t be sad, even though they do mean well.

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