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!