When a Friend Is Hurting: How You Can Help

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When a Friend Is Hurting

How You Can Help

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Phyllis walked into the restaurant where she was meeting her friend Carla for lunch, her stomach in knots and her eyes filling with tears.

“What’s wrong?” Carla asked Phyllis after she sat down at the table.

“I was talking with my mother-in-law on the phone this morning, trying to tactfully to tell her I didn’t appreciate some things she said to my husband about me, and it turned into a huge argument,” Phyllis sobbed. “She told me it was her prerogative to say whatever she wanted to HER son, and then she proceeded to tell me what she thought were my biggest faults. Then, without giving me a chance to respond, she hung up on me!”

Carla did not want to spend her lunch hour with a sobbing friend. “Calm down,” she told Phyllis. “You’re going to make yourself sick.”

“But I just feel so upset,” Phyllis lamented.

“I’m sure your mother-in-law didn’t mean to hurt your feelings,” Carla insisted. “Come on, smile. I don’t want to hear any of this sad talk. Let’s have a nice lunch.”

“I’ll try,” sighed Phyllis, who now felt worse than before she arrived at the restaurant.

“She told me it was her prerogative to say whatever she wanted to HER son, and then she proceeded to tell me what she thought were my biggest faults.”

At one time or another most of us find ourselves face-to-face with a friend who is in tears. Your friend may be upset about a disagreement with another person, as was the case with Phyllis, or your friend might be dealing with the loss of a job, a serious illness, financial difficulties, the death of a family member, or problems at work or home. During these times, our friends need our support more than ever.

But as much as you might want to help, it’s not always easy to know how to respond when a friend unloads on you. You may have never been in a similar situation and have no clue what your friend is going through. You may not feel comfortable in tense situations and be afraid you might accidentally say the wrong thing. Or if the tragedy is particularly serious, you might be tempted to avoid a suffering friend altogether, rather than risk blurting out words that don’t come out right.

Although each crisis situation is unique, we can learn to respond tactfully, sincerely and appropriately. It all boils down to knowing what types of things you shouldn’t—and should—say and do.

What not to do

Don’t dismiss the sufferer’s feelings. One of the biggest mistakes you can make when a friend tells you bad news is to deny you heard anything troubling. Changing the subject, making jokes and coming up with reasons why the problem isn’t a problem cut off communication and tell the sufferer that it’s not OK to feel sad or express sorrow. This includes saying things like “Don’t worry,” “Cheer up,” “It’s not so bad,” and “Look at the bright side.” The message you are conveying to the sufferer is that you do not want to hear his or her disclosures.

“People get so panicky about not knowing what to do or say that they shut the suffering person out to make themselves feel more comfortable,” says psychology professor Sandra Burkhardt, Ph.D., ABPP, of Saint Xavier University. Most people don’t do this intentionally, she adds. “They may actually mean well and not even realize how they’re coming across.”

When your friend is upset, this is not the time to say, “Hey, you think that’s bad, let me tell you what happened to me.”

Don’t change the subject to what happened to you. When your friend is upset, this is not the time to say, “Hey, you think that’s bad, let me tell you what happened to me.” Your friend came to you with a problem and needs you to listen to her. If instead, you try to switch the conversation over to what happened to you, you are, in effect, saying you’re much more conversation-worthy than she is. This can be very frustrating to the sufferer, Dr. Burkhardt says, “who may feel like you’re sloughing off her feelings and not giving her a chance to express what she is going through.”

Don’t offer false hope. Although you may want things to be better for your friend “on the spot,” avoid making statements you don’t know are true as a way of trying to be positive. Telling someone who’s just been in a serious automobile accident, “Don’t worry, you’ll be better soon,” or “You’re going to be walking in no time,” is an attempt at being positive. But it may not be a realistic assessment of the situation. It could also come across to the sufferer that you’re being critical of her for feeling as down as she is.

Don’t share your own complaints. If your friend unloads on you about a situation that involves another person, don’t use that as an opportunity to voice your own beefs about that person. Comments like “Yes, I have the same issues with him. He is so…!” and, “I never liked her in the first place” only lead to a gripe session.

Don’t give unsolicited advice. What to do to solve your friend’s crisis may seem obvious to you, but resist the temptation to give unsolicited advice. Dr. Burkhardt says giving advice is another way we cut off communication. Basically, you are telling yourself, If I can distract my friend by giving her some brilliant advice, she’ll stop crying.

Remind yourself that you are not an expert on someone else’s situation.

Advice can put the sufferer in an awkward position if he or she doesn’t take your suggestion. One man who was unemployed for six months told me: “I received a lot of unsolicited advice, and usually I didn’t think their suggestions would work. I felt like I had to defend the way I was handling my situation and didn’t feel encouraged at all. Instead, I’d think to myself, ‘Whew, I’ve made it through another interrogation.’”

This is also not the time to point out your friend’s mistakes and what you think led up to the current dilemma he is facing. Nor is it the time to play “devil’s advocate” with the sufferer by asking questions to challenge him on his perspectives and force him to “think through” how he is feeling. Doing these things will make the suffer feel like he is on trial and that he has to prove to you that his perspectives are valid. This can lead to an argument, when really what the sufferer needs most is for you to just try and understand where he is coming from. Remind yourself that you are not an expert on someone else’s situation. Even if you did experience a similar crisis as your friend, you are not the same people and there were certainly different factors at play. Furthermore, what worked for you might not work for another person.

In some cases, a suffering friend may ask you for advice. If so, it can be okay to give advice—IF your advice comes in the form of several alternatives, rather than one specific course of action you think he should take. Be sure your friend knows these are just possible ideas. Try to evaluate these ideas together. You might say, “What would you think of doing…?” That way, you are giving your friend an easy way to decline your advice if she doesn’t think it’ll work for her. But don’t be surprised if the sufferer is not ready to talk about solutions. Most people need to have their feelings validated first, before they are ready to move to the solution stage.

How you should respond

Listen in a nonjudgmental way. The best response you can give a hurting friend is to listen in a nonjudgmental way and try to understand why she feels the way she does. Romans 12:15 Romans 12:15Rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep.
American King James Version×
tells us to “rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn” (New International Version throughout). Galatians 6:2 Galatians 6:2Bear you one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.
American King James Version×
says we should “carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”

Your friend needs to be able to talk about her problem. Talking about what happened will allow her to begin working through the healing process. Calmly accept your friend’s situation for what it is and try not to deny what is happening. Responses such as “Tell me more about it,” “You’ve been through a lot,” and “I was sorry to hear the bad news,” communicate genuine acceptance and concern.

If your friend says something negative after a traumatic experience, try not to let it make you nervous. “It may be hard to hear, but remind yourself that she’s in a lot of pain,” Burkhardt says. “Just let her talk because, at that moment, that’s exactly how she feels.”

Show discretion. If the sufferer’s troubles involve a conflict with another person, it goes without saying that what you are told should not be repeated to anyone else. Also, you should be very careful to not start bad-mouthing the other person—even if you think this person is totally at fault. Responses such as “I can see why you feel that way” and “You must be very disappointed” let the sufferer know you accept how he feels without attacking anyone. Also, you do need to stress to your friend that she should go to the person she is upset with (according to the admonition of Matthew 18:15 Matthew 18:15Moreover if your brother shall trespass against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone: if he shall hear you, you have gained your brother.
American King James Version×
) and perhaps the ministry as well.

Remind the sufferer that she’s not going through this alone. Reassure your friend that you want the best for her and that you are praying about the situation. In James 5:16 James 5:16Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that you may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.
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we are told to “pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.” To say, “I’ll pray for you,” and mean it is enormously encouraging and will bind you together. Don’t be afraid of sounding gushy or syrupy.

Respect the sufferer’s privacy. Realize that some hurting people may not be ready to talk about their problem or may open up to only a few of their closest friends. Let the sufferer call the shots.

If you know someone is going through a difficult time, don’t jump on them the minute you see them and start asking prying questions. First discern if it’s a good time to talk, and try not to take it personally if the sufferer doesn’t feel comfortable opening up to you.

Asking “How are you doing?” or mentioning “If you ever need to talk, I’m available,” lets the sufferer know you are willing to listen if the need arises. Otherwise, you may appear pushy or like a busybody.

Give practical assistance. Don’t overlook some of the most obvious ways you can help a friend who is hurting. People in the middle of traumatic situations often feel overwhelmed and could use some help with their daily activities. That could mean cleaning house for them, running errands, cooking a meal for the family or picking their children up from school.

The husband of a cancer victim told me: “One of the biggest worries during my wife’s illness was who would watch over our 9-year-old daughter. I was either at work or at the hospital most of the time and wasn’t able to be much of a father. Several ladies in our church stepped right in and really helped out. They took our daughter shopping, to the movies, had her over for meals and even took her camping.”

Don’t get impatient with your friend if he is not over his tragedy, even though you and others may think he should be.

Be patient. Don’t get impatient with your friend if he is not over his tragedy, even though you and others may think he should be. It takes time to work through the grief process. Some problems are not going to have quick solutions. Depending on the severity of the situation, it can take months or even years to fully recover from some tragedies.

A friend shared how she felt during the five years her husband was battling chronic fatigue syndrome and was unable to work: “Although I know people meant well, they would ask me things like, ‘When is that guy of yours going to get well and start working again?’ and ‘Why doesn’t he try a less demanding job so he can at least get out of the house?’”

She continued: “They seemed to be saying he could go back to work if he really wanted to. They made us feel like there was something wrong with us. Some of our friends became uncomfortable around us and pulled away. When people avoided us, we started feeling like we were going through this difficult time alone.”

Job said, “A despairing man should have the devotion of his friends” (Job 6:14 Job 6:14To him that is afflicted pity should be showed from his friend; but he forsakes the fear of the Almighty.
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). We shouldn’t give up on people during their low periods.

Of course, there are limits to just being a good listener when your friend is upset. Sometimes you need to do more than just listen. If many weeks go by and your friend is still just at the initial “talking it out” stage of the grief process, if her emotional state seems to be deteriorating and her physical health is starting to suffer, if she doesn’t appear to be taking any steps towards resolution of the situation, or if she’s no longer comforted by your listening to her, encourage your friend to seek the help of her pastor or counselor.

And finally, don’t despair if you make a few mistakes while trying to help. No one can be expected to know what to say or how to act in every situation. Remind yourself that sufferers need the support of their friends. What matters most is that your friend knows she doesn’t have to face the difficult times alone.