This year has been relentlessly challenging from start to finish.
But for some people, it’s brought on especially intense levels of struggle, like losing a loved one to Covid or a pandemic-prompted job loss.
We could all use a refresher on being there for those who need us. These Charlotte therapists have tips on how to do it most effectively.
(1) Offer specific, actionable help.
Allison Todd, a licensed clinical social worker at HopeWay, explains that people who are struggling may not know what they need from their support network.
Instead of saying “let me know if I can help!” she advises offering more specific assistance, like “I’m going to the grocery store this afternoon. Do you need anything?” or “Do your kids need a ride to soccer?”
(2) It’s OK if you struggle to find the right words.
Jesse Roberts, a psychotherapist and the owner of Charlotte Counseling and Wellness, says, “It’s totally OK to say ‘I don’t have the words right now. I don’t know what it’s like to be in your shoes. But I wanted to say I’m really sorry.'”
(3) Follow their lead.
If you’re hesitant to bring up the issue for fear of further upsetting the person, be open about this. Explain that you’ll defer to them when it comes to discussing (or not) the topic they’re struggling with.
Kelly Hamilton, the executive director of Kindermourn, suggests saying something like, “I want you to know you’re welcome at any time to bring this up. You’re welcome to bring grief into this conversation. You’re also welcome to say, ‘Hey, let’s just talk about the latest trashy reality TV.'”
Todd adds that sometimes people hesitate to bring up a tough issue repeatedly, worrying that they’ll become a drain on their friends, so reminding the person that they can discuss it with you whenever they need is helpful.
(4) Be mindful as you commiserate.
If your go-to reaction when someone is struggling is to share a story about a similar experience you dealt with, proceed with caution.
Payal Patel, a marriage and family therapist at Manu Counseling, says, “Avoid saying, ‘Oh, I know what that’s like,’ because you don’t really know what it’s like for that person specifically. Instead, say, ‘I can’t imagine what that’s like for you. How can I support you? I’m sure this is probably really difficult for you.’ It’s about opening up the conversation and engaging with them.”
(5) Continue to check in.
Hamilton explains that within a few weeks of a tragic event like the loss of a loved one, “most everyone gets back to their normal lives, but that’s when the shock and numbness start to wear off. As the griever, you’re looking around going, ‘Oh my gosh, everybody’s gone back to their life. Now what am I going to do?’ You need those few, really close friends to stick with the person. To be there to listen and to help them with the daily activities that can be a nuisance.”
Don’t forget to check in on days that may be especially hard, she adds, like the anniversary of a loved one’s death.
(6) It’s OK to keep things light.
While you want to meet your loved one where they are that day, you also shouldn’t be afraid to keep things light, when appropriate. Patel says a friend of hers recently experienced a miscarriage. “I’ll text him and say, ‘Hey, I’ve been thinking about you. Are you guys OK?’ or I’ll send him a joke or remind him of a funny story, and then let that lead into how they’re doing.”
Even during tough times, people appreciate (appropriately distributed) levity.
(7) Set boundaries.
If you’re dealing with your own stressors while also trying to be there for others, you can end up burning the candle at both ends. “Be intentional about your daily self-care,” says Todd. “What are things that bring you joy? It’s easy to be a sponge and take everything in, but you’ve got to take care of yourself.”
“It’s OK to acknowledge that you’re not OK. It’s OK if you need time for yourself. Self-preservation isn’t a selfish thing. You can’t pour from an empty cup,” Roberts adds.
What if you need to have an awkward conversation where you let a friend know you’re not in a position to be a sympathetic ear that day? Todd suggests acknowledging this honestly, then offering a specific time when you’ll be up for listening again. “You can say, ‘I don’t mean to not be here for you today, but I’m having a really hard day myself. Let’s reconnect and have coffee tomorrow morning.”