How to help a friend going through hell
April 26, 2013 12:07 PM   Subscribe

Major breakup, deaths of close relatives, and pet illness and predicted pet death. How can I possibly help?

In the span of four months, one of my best friends has been through too much - two close aunts passed away (one unexpectedly), she was semi-abandoned by her SO this winter and just officially broke it off with him after trying to mend things since then, her beloved pet had a health scare three weeks ago and just received a cancer diagnosis with 3-6 months left to live. Plus lots of other issues on the side. Meanwhile my life is going pretty smoothly, happy marriage, healthy pet, savings in the bank, maybe having a baby or something soon.

How can I help her through this? Is it really only just "being there" for her? She's the type that withdraws when bad things happen and I have a hard time knowing when it's ok to be with her vs. give her space she legitimately needs. Plus she's made it clear she's not leaving her pet's side except for work for as long as possible, so I don't think "getting her out of the house" is going to help at all. She's tried therapy and medication during a previous rough patch (not this rough) but wasn't that enthusiastic about it, and I'm not sure she wants to try again especially if it means time away from her pet. Has anyone been in her shoes and if so, what's really helped? I feel terrible for her.
posted by wannabecounselor to Human Relations (17 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
"Being there" is probably the most important thing you can do.

Nothing you can do will replace her aunts, her relationship, or (soon) her pet. The one thing you can do is show her that there are things in her life that are strong and healthy - your relationship being one of those things. You be the judge of how "there" you need to be, but just having someone in her life that she knows will be there and cares about her will help get her back to a stable place. She's lost a lot of things; your relationship with her can be one of the constant positives that helps her through this.
posted by _DB_ at 12:12 PM on April 26, 2013 [3 favorites]

Can you hang out with her? Go with her to the vet? Plan to bring some food and wine and your spouse and have some meals with her? Try to be there when her pet passes?

Bad times happen to all of us, often in clusters. Friends make a huge difference to getting through it.
posted by bearwife at 12:16 PM on April 26, 2013 [5 favorites]

I would try and do nice things for her. Send flowers to brighten her day. Can you afford to pay for a few sessions of a pet sitter or walker? It might be nice for her to have someone else check on her pet while she's at work. Volunteer to go with her when it's time to put the animal down or be there if she's doing it at home.

I would still ask her to do stuff, 3-6 months of sitting at home waiting for a pet to die is a pretty long time to do nothing.

You don't have to make a night of it, but a quick drink or cheap dinner might be in order from time to time. Offer to have a pizza delivered. Share funny stories and let her mope and be sad.
posted by shoesietart at 12:18 PM on April 26, 2013

It's sort of cliche, but bring her food. I've found the most helpful way to approach this (both as recipient and as a friend wanting to help) to be along the lines of, "can I come see you this evening and bring dinner when I come?" It's okay if it's just something you pick up at the store or at a restaurant--it will give her relief from the energy it takes to plan one's own meals and can be such a nice relief from her worries.
posted by pril at 12:24 PM on April 26, 2013 [5 favorites]

Here is what I would do, and what I have done:

Call her regularly. If she picks up, only stay on the phone for a short amount of time only, tell her you love her, care about her, and ask if there's anything you can do for her. If she doesn't pick up, leave her a message telling her you love her, care about her, and she does not need to call you back - you just wanted to let her know you are thinking about her.

Drop off some food with a card at her house. If she invites you inside, go inside, but if you get the faintest hint that she wants space, leave - make an excuse if you need to. If you get the idea that she doesn't want to invite you inside, say that you need to run and just leave the food with her.

The idea is that you want to keep in contact, let her know that you are thinking about her and caring about her. Let her withdraw if that's what she needs, and don't pressure her, but be there for her when she's ready to talk / hang out / needs a friend.
posted by insectosaurus at 12:33 PM on April 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

I did indeed go through a long protracted amount of suck like this.

Nthing "be there" now - but also, be there later. All too often, when something goes down that people are trying to cope with, you get friends coming out of the woodwork to help the first couple weeks, but peters out. And her aunts dying is still going to be just as sad for her after a month.

Check in with her a bit now - but also keep checking in with her a month from now, or two months from now.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:36 PM on April 26, 2013 [4 favorites]

I think it would be nice if you went over with takeout Thai (or whatever) food and a funny rental movie and just agreed to sit with her for an evening every week and not talk unless she wants to.
posted by rmless at 12:37 PM on April 26, 2013 [6 favorites]

I always withdraw in times of stress. The people who help me the most are the ones who are leaving me alone but are "there" in the wings. They text me little things, invite me to things every so often, and offer to come over and hang out but it's all very low pressure. That way I don't feel bad for retreating into doing what I have to do, but I also know if I need a change of pace or someone to talk to, they are only a phone call away.

I know I'm in the minority, but I would not want people to bring me things, even food, because then I'd feel obligated to interact. But I think getting a card or flowers would be very nice.
posted by Katine at 12:44 PM on April 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'm sorry to hear this. I can only chime in with: Being there for her. (Visiting, listening, calling - with a sensitive ear and heart).

And be there for her in four-six months time. In my experience that's when the going get rough...

I would like to add: Tell her about her good sides. Affirm her positive traits.

You are a good friend.

Take care,
posted by Rabarberofficer at 12:47 PM on April 26, 2013

It completely depends on the kind of friendship the two of you have, and whether she'd be comfortable with this, but some people really need touch. One of the most difficult things for me about breakups after long relationships is that you can have days or sometimes even weeks go by without another human touching you at all, and then only briefly when they do. It can take a while to get used to that. So, if she wants them, some hugs might really help.
posted by cairdeas at 1:22 PM on April 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think I had your friend's life last year. The other things mentioned here are great, but another thing that helped me both during and after my pet's illness was having someone help me take pictures and video of him, and me with him, as often as possible during the last weeks. And also occasionally I had someone who helped me transport him or pick up medicine or supplies, or who would stay with him when I had to be at work, because sometimes the guilt over having to leave him was nearly overwhelming. It was extremely reassuring to know someone was there. A great deal of the anxiety and helplessness created by the other things that were going horribly wrong was diverted into worrying about ensuring my pet's comfort around the clock- seriously, the grief about the guy and the panic over money and the fact that my family was mourning all got channeled into providing hospice care for one elderly cat- and anything that made that easier helped me deal with the other concerns.

If you can, and she's not strongly opposed to it, being there to help dig a grave and sing a song or whatever seems appropriate would be a kind thing.

And lastly, if her pet is a cuddly sort, the loss of the physical presence might be difficult. Flowers wouldn't have done much for me, but a week or so afterwards, someone gave me a beautiful afghan that they had picked out for me because, they said, it felt like petting him.
posted by notquitemaryann at 1:26 PM on April 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

Affirm what she's going through. Don't say "It'll get better" even though it will. Instead, say, "You must hurt so badly." Don't say "I know what you're going through" because even if you've been through the same thing, your experience & hers are different.

One of the things that is hardest for people -- and may not be for you, but just in case -- is letting people say they're in despair without trying to find the bright side. I have had several experiences of people I wasn't even particularly close to grabbing onto me at the funeral of someone really close to them (a couple of times, it was a newborn baby who had died) just because I was the only one who was willing to say "I think this is the worst thing you will ever experience."

When a boyfriend's father died unexpectedly almost 30 years ago, I stumbled upon this book, the title of which, "How Can I Help?" was the exact question I needed answered. It isn't the direct answer to your question but it's certainly a good indirect one and a really good guide to living.

This book was very helpful to me in grieving the death of my cat. It's a workbook that allows you to write down all the things you love and remember about your animal so that you don't ever forget. There are also some really lovely jewelry pieces that you can get. A dear friend has her dog's paw print on a charm. I have some of my cat's fur in a tiny sarcophagus pendant, and when I went to a grief support group, someone in the group showed me a bracelet made by Planet Jill with her dog's pictures and I immediately had a necklace made with my cat's photos.

What really didn't help me was the "rainbow bridge" concept, which is a weepy kind of story about how when you die your pet will rush to meet you. Considering that I don't believe in an afterlife, that was just horribly painful for me, and only served to underscore the permanence of the loss.
posted by janey47 at 2:32 PM on April 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

Tell her what a kind and good pet owner she is and how lucky her pet is to have her in these circumstances.
Chances are she will feel guilty about being away from her pet and guilty over his/her care even if your friend is doing an excellent job. Reminding her of all the things she does and has done for that pet would be good.
Like "Fluffy is so lucky that you've been her Person. Remember when Fluffy first came to your house and you *let him use your favorite shirt as a love doll/reorganized the furniture so he could get to the door more easily/got a step so he could jump into bed with you/cleaned his butt twice a day*? You are such a good caretaker and the best person to help Fluffy through this time."
posted by rmless at 3:32 PM on April 26, 2013

I can mainly offer advice on the pet side. If she's up for it make some of your socializing a visit to her so that she's not worrying about the pet. Errand running can be super helpful too.

Also helping out with the end of life arrangements for her pet can really make things easier if you're both comfortable with that. It can be anything like helping figure out the logistics of putting the pet to sleep to just offering a ride when the time comes. Knowing some of this beforehand can make the very end easier and keep her from spending too much $$. These are some things to consider on that front. How does the vet schedule emergency euthanasia? can they come to her house? do they work with a mobile vet who can come to her house? How much does it cost? Is there an emergency vet she can go to if things get bad after hours? What does she want to happen with the body? Does she want a lock of fur or a paw print?

From past experience I agree with the above that she'll feel guilty and that the Rainbow Bridge idea might not be helpful.
posted by oneear at 3:57 PM on April 26, 2013

Try looking into pet photographers in your area. If you can find one who is reasonably priced and does good work, you could treat your friend and her pet to a session and the resulting photos. If the pet is in visibly ill health and wouldn't look it's best in photos, maybe you could find an artist who could do a portrait of the pet from an existing photograph.
Also, when you visit her, make a point to always bring a small something for the pet. A toy, a treat, a soft blanket.

I think that showing consistency about the looming loss of her pet will mean a huge amount to her, and will make her feel very loved and supported by you. You are a good friend.
posted by Brody's chum at 4:51 PM on April 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

From my experience and personality (sort of like that of Katine, and maybe a bit like your friend), and assuming you are capable of these, some of the following may help:

* Be there for your friend. What does this mean? Be available when she needs you (for the major part at least). Not just now, or two months down the road but for a year or two. Call her once in a while and ask her how she is doing. Ask her if she wants to go out or do something. Don't bring up the "I am worried about you..blah blah". Just pick up the phone and call and then listen and see where the conversation goes and follow her lead. Its amazing how often people assume that one is supposed to "get over" loss in a matter of 1-2 months. This is a myth! If you lose someone very close to you, depending on the uniqueness of her relationships and grief, that void will last a lifetime. Its only the intensity of the pain that may decrease with time. Lots of time!

* Listen intently. There is a fine line between sharing your story of loss (if you have one) with her and interrupting her when she is in the middle of something to tell her about that time that you were in a similar situation and felt the same way. That diminishes, if not dismisses, her experience and is likely not going to make her better but worse. Let her talk, let her finish and then maybe tell part of your experience that is relevant that may be something that resonates with her.

*Ask her, "What can I do to help" once every 3-4 weeks or more. I cannot tell you how many people, friends and closer relationships, failed miserably to ask this one simple question. Some others went overboard obsessively and just assumed what I would want to do based on what they wanted to do and then my being honest about not wanting to do that thing was twisted into other stuff- taking it personally, my being rude or what not. Listen to her when she is saying "no" and back off coz depending on her personality, that could be taken as constant pressure and zero slack. This is her time. She gets slack, lots of it for at least one year, and probably more if more losses are on the way in the future.

* Know the list of things not to say.. Some stupid things to say at this time:
"Life is difficult"
"I know how you feel"
"I felt the same way when my cousin died"
"When I was feeling X, I did Y to help me feel better. We should try Y sometime. It will make you feel better"
"Lets do X" "I would really like us to do X" (without checking first whether she wants to do X at all or failing to pay attention when she says she is not interested)
"You are isolating yourself"
"You should go out more often"
"You should/should not (anything)"
"Other people have gone through this before you so you will be fine"
Failing to take cues that she wants to be left alone.
Failing to say "I am sorry for your loss"
Failing to say "What can I do to help"
There may be times when she needs help but may not ask directly- listen intently and offer help if you think this is what she is looking for.
Saying anything that diminishes, dismisses or fails to acknowledge or validate her feelings.

She may not always know what she wants herself. Give her time to figure it out and work your interactions with her accordingly and go with the flow.

* It is wonderful that your life is going great, and you may feel tempted to share the good things with her in the hope of, well, bringing hope to her. Please don't. She can probably see how well your life is going and if she wants to know or talk about it, she can and will ask.

* Try not to deviate too much from your usual pre-loss routines. For instance, if you used to hang out every Friday with two other friends for drinks, invite her now as well. Don't leave her out assuming she doesn't want to go or will be sad or things will be awkward or what not. Change in routines, avoiding talking about the loss or the loved ones is one of the top pet peeves of people who have lost someone and now find their friends acting weird around them.

* You may hear her talk about the same things over and over again, especially if you end up being there for her for more than just a couple of months. You'll need lots of patience for being the friend who was really there when it mattered. And while it may be painful for you at that point, rest assured that your kindness will not go unnoticed at this time.

*Hope this helps but know that this is all based on my experience and the people who have shared their experience with me. This is such an individualized thing that its best to not assume *anything* and just check with the person in question and see what they want and don't want.

Your intentions are clearly sincere as you asked this question in the first place- kudos to you! If only more people out there were just as inquisitive and interested in helping their friends out during such difficult times...
posted by xm at 9:48 PM on April 29, 2013

Oh, another stupid thing to say:
"Be brave/strong"
posted by xm at 9:49 PM on April 29, 2013

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