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What To Say When A Friend Is Struggling

Clare Schneider/NPR
Clare Schneider/NPR

We want to be supportive of our friends, colleagues, partners and family members when they're having a hard time. But what does that actually look like?

"Showing up is the act of bearing witness to people's joy, pain, and true selves," Rachel Wilkerson Miller writes in the first chapter of her new book, The Art of Showing Up: How to Be There for Yourself and Your People. "[It's] validating their experiences; easing their load; and communicating that they are not alone in this life."

Miller walks us through the do's and don'ts of showing up for your people.

Keep your focus on your friend.

When a friend is confiding in you, it's easy to let the focus of your conversation drift away from the friend's experience. While it's tempting to chime in with a similar story in an effort to relate and connect, it's not always welcome. Your friend might feel silenced or feel that you've made their pain about you.

If you do feel that your experience might be helpful to hear, Miller's tip is to let them know that you went through something similar but allow them to decide if they want to hear about it in the moment.

"It's the best of both worlds," she says. "You get to tell them they're not alone, but you're not going to bore them with a story about how your pet died after their sibling died. You can let them decide if these things are related or not."

Ask how you can best help.

You don't need to automatically know what kind of help your friend wants. Just ask! Miller says to try these questions:

  • What's the best way I can support you right now?
  • Do you need someone to vent to? Or would you like my advice?
  • How are you feeling about [whatever tough experience your friend is going through]?
  • Tell me about your thought process.

A heartfelt "I'm sorry" goes a long way.

People may shy away from saying, "I'm sorry" in response to someone's misfortune because it might not feel like enough of an acknowledgment. But Miller says a genuine "I'm sorry" can go a long way to make your friend feel heard and validated.

"Sometimes there isn't a perfect response that is going to make people feel better," she says. "What you want to do is communicate, 'You're not alone. I'm with you. This sucks. I'm so sorry it's happening to you.' "

Lean away from clichés.

Platitudes like "Everything happens for a reason" aren't helpful when you're trying to comfort a friend. Resorting to clichés can make it feel like you're minimizing the friend's pain.

And stay away from statistics. For example, if a friend found out their spouse is cheating, maybe don't try to make them feel less alone by sharing that 50% of marriages end in divorce.

"Feel with your friend the bigness of what they're going through," Miller says. "Remember that just because it happens to a lot of people doesn't mean it's any less devastating."

Try not to "foist" or "fret."

In There Is No Good Card for This, a book outlining strategies for helping loved ones, the authors Kelsey Crowe and Emily McDowell identify two problematic kinds of helpers: foisters and fretters.

Foisters tend to push their advice — to insist on fixing or overcoming the problem. Fretters are so worried about their friend's challenges that they are preoccupied with whether they are doing enough to help.

Try to keep those behaviors in check, Miller says. "No one should have to manage you when they're going through a tragedy."

Showing up isn't a one-time thing.

Anniversaries of difficult dates can be tough. And grief is so complicated and looks different for each person. Remember that your friend might transition through several stages of sorrow, frustration or anger. Keep in touch with them and see if their needs change. "It means a lot to know that your friend is aware and thinking about you," says Miller.

We'd love to hear how you're coping during the coronavirus pandemic. Leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823, or email us at LifeKit@npr.org. Your tip could appear in an upcoming episode.

If you want more Life Kit, subscribe to our newsletter.

The audio portion of this story was produced by Sylvie Douglis, who also adapted the story for digital.

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