How to Support Someone Through Loss and Transition
Trying to support a friend or family member while they are going through a major life transition can be a very helpless feeling. We don't know what to do, what to say, or how to act. Are we being supportive enough? Are we too much "in their business"? I haven't heard from her in awhile...does that mean she wants me to leave her alone?
My "major life transition" happened four years ago when I became a widow. Since then, I have realized that the need for support doesn't just happen when someone dies: Divorce, job loss, infertility...so many things can completely change the scope or our lives. And in fact, that's what loss is: Losing the life you thought you were going to have.
Many people assume that, given my experience, I know exactly what's needed during times of loss. And the truth is...I do and I don't. I know what it's like to go through it and I have heard enough stories in the Widdahood to know what people appreciate and what they don't. The problem is...the type of support that is needed is different for each person. That's why I've come up with these easy steps to remember so that you can help the people you love with sincerity and success.
ASSESS: Really take a look at the situation. Don't necessarily rush in with what your initial instinct is telling you to do. Chances are, your instinct may be telling you what you would want in this situation...not what your friend needs. And even though you may have gone through something similar in your own life, everyone reacts differently and has different needs. Don't assume that just because you went through a divorce five years ago, you know exactly what your friend is going through. You can sympathize, but our life experiences are as individual as we are.
ASK: This is probably the most important piece of support: Listen. Be present. Many people rush in with advice and what they think are words of comfort. Ask them questions that require more than a yes or no answer (most people, even going through a tough time, would actually really like to talk about their "story"). Don't just say "how are you?" as a greeting...really ask how they're doing and actively listen. And if they ask for your advice...give it. If they don't, unsolicited advice often implies that they're doing something wrong. Just remember this: The best support usually happens when only one person is talking. And that person should be your friend.
ACT: Many times the person in need will feel awkward asking for help. The blanket statement "just call me if you need anything" won't fly. Because chances are they do need something...they are just uncomfortable asking for it.
Figure out your strengths as a friend. Are you a financial planner who can offer to help her get things straight? Are your kids the same ages as hers, making it easier for you to whisk them away for a playdate, giving her time to herself? Are you close to her mother who you know she loves...but is secretly driving her crazy during her "time of need"? Take her to lunch so your friend gets a little space!
Again...once you have assessed the situation and figured out a need...be a little proactive. By that I mean: Don't say, "Call me if you need help with your kids." Call and say, "My kids have been really missing your kids. Can I have them tomorrow afternoon so they can play for awhile?"
Don't be too pushy about it. If you have sincerely offered several times, your friend may not be ready for various reasons. Don't necessarily give up...just give space. Help that doesn't sound appealing right now may be exactly what she needs in a month.
Quick ideas for supporting a friend in need:
- Set up a phone schedule:Do this with her mutual friends so that you know someone is calling to check on her and put two people on it twice a week. That doesn't mean those are the only times people can call...but you know she will be covered for support on a regular basis. I would suggest doing this for six months, minimum. No one wants to feel forgotten.
- Set up a meal schedule: Go to Take Them a Meal and set up an account. This is a GREAT way to schedule meals and you can see what other people are bringing so you know they won't be having spaghetti twice in one day.
- Send cards: I know that sounds like a no-brainer, but don't just do it right after the loss. Think outside the box. After my husband died, my sister regularly sent me funny cards (sometimes they were even birthday cards and she would X out "Happy Birthday"). You could also put her on a "card schedule": Give her a stack of cards and put on the envelope when she's allowed to open each one. This gives her a small something to look forward to.
- Set up a "Kitchen Table Club": Let's face it. When the going gets tough, we want our girlfriends around us. Gather a group of 4 close friends for a regular monthly gathering to just catch up with each other.
- Don't give your support an expiration date: Many times, when we go through a huge transition we're surrounded by people in the beginning...and then we don't hear from anyone a few months later. And, truthfully, that's usually when the fog has cleared and we're really working through our transition. If you need to, mark your calendar to check in every few weeks for a least a year, so you don't forget.
Catherine Tidd is a writer, widow and mother of three. She is the founder of theWiddahood.com, a free peer support website dedicated to anyone who has lost a significant other and has a Facebook peer support page under the name Widow Chick.
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