Having the hard conversations with good friends
June 9, 2015 8:05 PM   Subscribe

Several of my friends have gone through some hard life events lately (death, unemployment and more) and I want to know how to talk about it with them.

Several of my friends have gone through some seriously disturbing life events lately: One was fired from a longtime job after just purchasing a house, another's partner just committed suicide, and another had a flee an abusive marriage. I want to be a good friend and be there for them, obviously, but I also don't know at what level it is appropriate to talk about the events, to ask questions (and what questions are appropriate to ask) or to just wait for the other person to offer to talk about it first. I don't want to make people uncomfortable and don't want to be nosy, but also want to provide support if needed. I always do the "if you need anything, I'm here" conversation, but beyond those basics, what is an appropriate next step?
posted by Toddles to Society & Culture (17 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
"If you need anything I'm here" can read hollow. Offer specifics.

"If you want to talk, I am here."
"Can I make you dinner next Wednesday?"
"Do you need a place to stay? I will get my guest room/couch together"
"Do you want me to help circulate your resume?"
"Come over because I am opening a bottle of wine"
"Are you seeing a therapist? It can help with this. It helped me when I had [insert big life issue]"
"I have stopped by with this lasagna because I know cooking is not on your radar after a funeral."
posted by slateyness at 8:12 PM on June 9, 2015 [13 favorites]

Oh. And no initial questions about what happened, generally, as that may be nosy. Questions on the person's well being instead. Let the other person share and listen. Follow up questions are okay but should be sandwiched with sympathy.
posted by slateyness at 8:15 PM on June 9, 2015

Spend time with them. Don't make them say what they need or do the heavy work of planning (though it's good to be flexible if they say they want to do something specific). Just say, "hey, want to get together this weekend?" Or "want to get dinner Tuesday?" Or whatever you would normally do with them.

If it seems like it would be helpful, offer to drive or to pick up stuff for them when you're at the store or make dinner - "let me know if you need anything" isn't as helpful as "can I pick up groceries for you?" And if they mention something being hard that you can help with, try to find a low-pressure way to help later (some people will be afraid to put you out or not want to seem like they are "fishing" or may honestly just want to solve their problems themselves, so don't be pushy here - just be kind.)

In general, listen. Let them decide if they want to talk about it or if they want a break from taking about it. Don't minimize their feelings or try to tell them what to feel - "he's with god now" or "that job sucked anyway!" or "you must be so miserable" - let them tell you how they feel and guide the conversation, and don't feel a need to guideit down any particular "standard path". Just really listening and caring is worth a lot.
posted by Lady Li at 8:16 PM on June 9, 2015 [2 favorites]

You are a thoughtful and kind person.

The answer is: it will depend on each specific friend. Some may want to talk openly about what has happened; others may not. The nicest thing you can do is find out what they'd like and then follow their lead.

The best way to do it is probably to ask. You could just say, "I am so sorry for what you're going through. I don't want to push you or make you uncomfortable if you don't feel like talking about it, but if you ever do want to talk, I will listen and be here for you anytime."

slateyness: Oh. And no initial questions about what happened, generally, as that may be nosy. Questions on the person's well being instead. Let the other person share and listen. Follow up questions are okay but should be sandwiched with sympathy."

I totally agree.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 8:18 PM on June 9, 2015 [2 favorites]

Money will not restore the dead to living, won't undo an abusive marriage, and won't get a job back.

But these sorts of lousy life events are, like most lousy life events, things that eat money like crazy, and things where extra money/not having to worry about money really helps. And money is one of the hardest things to ask for and to admit to needing more of.

If you are reasonably well-off, and your friends are not wealthy -- volunteer your chequebook. Don't be vague about it. "I would like to help with the costs if you'll let me. I know $1000 [or whatever you can afford] is not going to fix the problem. But I can afford to part with that much and would like you to be better able to worry about yourself instead of worrying about money."

(Then pick one of slateyness' lines and throw that out as well...)
posted by kmennie at 8:42 PM on June 9, 2015 [3 favorites]

When I was going through something really tough and blabbed on for a really long time about it to my friend, she said, "I'm not really sure what to say." It was honest, not paternalistic, and I appreciated it. I knew she had listened, but my situation sucked so much that, well, I probably wouldn't have known what to say, either.

Sometimes just having somebody listen is already enough. All of those life situations you listed above sound so awful, and you probably don't know what it feels like to be in their shoes, and that's okay. If one of your friends seems to be struggling with basic life activities, offer to help out. But aside from that, lending an ear (if your friend wants to talk) is often a huge help.
posted by gemutlichkeit at 8:55 PM on June 9, 2015

I always have trouble asking for help, and I've really appreciated when friends have stepped up and helped without being asked. I've had people stop by with unexpected dinners, friends come over to do my laundry, and one tell me she was coming over to clean my house (tell, not ask...and I ended up having to cancel because of a scheduling conflict, but I know she was good for it.) It may depend on the temperament of your friend, but in my case I really appreciated having friends take the initiative instead of waiting for me to ask, because I am too proud and private to ask for help, even when I need it.
posted by Bella Sebastian at 9:09 PM on June 9, 2015 [2 favorites]

"Do you want to talk about what's going on/what happened? Is there anything I can do to help?"

Then listen to the answers, and do what you're willing (it's ok to say "I can't do that" or, better, "I can't help you with that, but let's brainstorm other ways you can get that need met").

I really liked a model a former supervisor set up, which is that people dealing with the aftermath of loss or trauma tend to need friends who are good with diversion/distraction, emotional processing, and practical help, but that each friend is generally only good at one (maaaaybe two) of those things, and happiness comes from asking the right friend for the right help. It may be helpful for you to identify which of those one (or maaaaaybe two) of those things you are good at, and offering help in those areas. You could go above and beyond by helping your friends identify the people in their lives who might better fulfill the other needs, and non-enviously suggesting they spend time with those people when they need those needs met.
posted by jaguar at 9:23 PM on June 9, 2015 [3 favorites]

As someone who lost my wife at the age of just 35 a few months ago, there are two things I hate hearing: "How are you doing?" and "I know things have been hard lately, but they will get better in the future."

I never want to talk about how I'm doing. I still don't want to. People are so used to asking that question casually, and they do mean well, but when you're doing terribly, it's not something you want to talk about, particularly right off the bat.

Sheryl Sandberg just lost her husband, who was only 47. She recently wrote a must-read piece on grieving. She had this to say on the "how are you" question:
Even a simple “How are you?”—almost always asked with the best of intentions—is better replaced with “How are you today?” When I am asked “How are you?” I stop myself from shouting, My husband died a month ago, how do you think I am? When I hear “How are you today?” I realize the person knows that the best I can do right now is to get through each day.
I couldn't agree more.

As for the "things will get brighter" notion, well, intellectually, that might be true. I might even sometimes admit to knowing that. But when you're in the thick of it, it's impossible to feel that way. It's not that you don't want to think about the future—you can't. You feel awful. The future is some impossibly vague distant thing that has no relevance to you right now. You're just trying to, as Sandberg says, get through each day. She also spoke to this specific issue:
I have learned that I never really knew what to say to others in need. I think I got this all wrong before; I tried to assure people that it would be okay, thinking that hope was the most comforting thing I could offer. A friend of mine with late-stage cancer told me that the worst thing people could say to him was “It is going to be okay.” That voice in his head would scream, How do you know it is going to be okay? Do you not understand that I might die?

I learned this past month what he was trying to teach me. Real empathy is sometimes not insisting that it will be okay but acknowledging that it is not. When people say to me, “You and your children will find happiness again,” my heart tells me, Yes, I believe that, but I know I will never feel pure joy again. Those who have said, “You will find a new normal, but it will never be as good” comfort me more because they know and speak the truth.
The bolded part spoke to me on a very deep level. It's been something I've tried to communicate to people for months now. I understand the "things will get better" sentiment. People want to try to be upbeat, want to try to lift you from your sorrow, and they also want to believe it for themselves. But the true friends are the ones who've said to me, "Yeah, it's sucks. It's terrible. It's the worst thing in the world" and just sat there and hugged me and let me cry. There aren't many people like that. If you can be that friend, you are a good friend indeed.

One of the only good pieces of advice I've received (from another widow, as it happens, who herself called it one of the only good pieces of advice she received after her husband committed suicide) is, "The only way through it is through it." That just means that when you're on the receiving end of tragedy, it's going to suck, and you have to let it suck, and there are no shortcuts. What I want more than anything are friends who can just let it suck with me.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 9:45 PM on June 9, 2015 [18 favorites]

I think that only a true friend is able to ask, through the fear, 3 months after they should be over it: "so... I've been thinking about you, after (thing). How are you doing?" And then waiting for the answer.
posted by samthemander at 9:46 PM on June 9, 2015 [2 favorites]

samthemander: "I think that only a true friend is able to ask, through the fear, 3 months after they should be over it: "so... I've been thinking about you, after (thing). How are you doing?" And then waiting for the answer."

I have already said my piece just above about "How are you doing?" But what does "should be over it" mean? I will let Patrick O'Malley, a therapist who wrote an excellent piece on grief in the New York Times earlier this year, speak for me:
Many, however, seek help only because they and the people around them believe that time is up on their grief. The truth is that grief is as unique as a fingerprint, conforms to no timetable or societal expectation.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 9:52 PM on June 9, 2015 [6 favorites]

I'm very sorry for your loss, Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell.

I agree with you, Sheryl Sandberg's piece was excellent, particularly the bit you highlighted about how the most helpful statements don't talk about how things will be better. Rather they acknowledge how awful the situation is and don't try to rush the bereaved person past their grief. There is a lot of well meaning encouragement to "get over" loss, or "move on," and it can be very isolating. If you make it clear you're willing to listen immediately after loss AND well into the future you will be a true friend.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 11:01 PM on June 9, 2015

"It's ok to not be ok."

And, I don't quite know how to put this, but the kibbutz owner in The Scholar's Tale chapter of Hyperion is what I always think of: "if it becomes too much, come". Tell your friends that if they ever need a night off, to not be ok, to not talk, or talk, or cry, or whatever, to come, you will make them dinner.* Not just tomorrow or next week, but six months from now and next year. And that that's ok.

*dinner offer not actually required
posted by susiswimmer at 11:12 PM on June 9, 2015 [3 favorites]

slateyness's suggestion about not just offering open-ended help, but offering specifics, is a really good one. Trauma totally decimates executive function for a lot of people, and that can last for a long, long time-- like, a couple of years. My former partner died by suicide over two years ago, and I feel like I am just lately getting back to my full functioning ability. There are some good suggestions in this older thread about immediate assistance and support.

I also want to reiterate Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell's two excellent comments--terrible things suck. They just do. There are ways to reduce the amount that they suck, but they will never not be terrible and hard. And there is no "right" way and no "correct" timeline for getting through them. I lost a friend after M's death partially because she felt like I was "taking too long" and "being too emotional" about it just a few months after he died. Do not be that friend. Recognize that (even if you've gone through something similar yourself) you can't know what it's like for this particular person to go through this particular thing. They feel how they feel, and that's okay. Let them feel what they feel, and try to help in measurable, practical ways if you can (make dinner, hang out, etc).
posted by Kpele at 11:38 AM on June 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

Kpele: "I lost a friend after M's death partially because she felt like I was "taking too long" and "being too emotional" about it just a few months after he died. Do not be that friend. "

I am very sorry you went through this, but this is the sort of experience tragedy breeds. Many people cannot bear to be around tragedy. My widow friend told me she learned who her true friends were in the aftermath of her husband's death. I have learned the same sad thing.

The fact that the OP is even asking this question to begin with is a wonderful thing to see—OP is trying to understand how best to be a good friend. There are, of course, situations when someone goes beyond grief and starts to engage in injurious behavior. But it doesn't sound like that's the sort of thing we're talking about, so I want to second what Kpele said about not being to "know what it's like for this particular person to go through this particular thing." Acknowledging what you don't and cant' know is a key to being a good friend.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 12:56 PM on June 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

The standard answer and template comes to mind:

Ring Theory - Comfort In, Dump Out
posted by lalochezia at 10:55 AM on June 11, 2015

Conrad, I'm very sorry for your loss. It speaks to the wide ranges of experience in grief that we have such opposite answers just moments apart. For me, after the first few months of my best friend's death (childhood best friends, similar to a sibling), I was so grateful to have people remember that I was still suffering her loss. I always felt like I was putting on a strong face through pain that only saw an outlet at the therapist... it felt "real" to have someone acknowledge it.

I'm deeply sorry for your loss.
posted by samthemander at 9:19 PM on June 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

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