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How to be there for a loved one when you don't know how

Social Skills 101: How to be there for someone when things get real

Okay, I know what you’re thinking; are we in the matrix?! I thought everything was real… wait, don’t I mean “is” real?

I don’t know if we’re in the matrix, or how real a possibility that is. But what I mean by “real” is the kind of life experiences that no-one prepares you for:

Attack, Abuse, Assault, Accidents, Illness, Miscarriage, Loss, War, Serious life events, Trauma, Witnessing any of the former.*

And because no-one prepares you for serious life events, it also means that no-one is actually prepared for them. That means that, as a friend or loved one, you have no clue what to do or say when you find out that someone you love or care for has been through <insert serious life event here>. Or the aftermath of a serious life event.

It means that you have to confront your own fears around that issue, and work through them while trying to be there for someone who you want to help. It’s an incredibly difficult situation to navigate.

Of course, you may have read about this issue. You might even work with this issue in your professional life, but when it’s someone with whom you have shared your own most vulnerable moments it’s not as easy to be a leaning post.

So where do we begin?

  1. Remember that your friend or loved one is still the same person. If they really enjoyed bonding over a tv show, time outdoors or a cup of tea, they will still enjoy it.

2. Don’t make it about you. If you are having a hard time with the news then it’s a certainty that the person who went through it is too. And given that they went through it, whatever “it” is, they will be feeling more than you.

3. Do not make it about the serious life event. Remember the first point; they are still the same person. Now remember the second point, because if you make it about the serious life event that means you are making it about you.

4. Turn up. You don’t need to know what to say or what to do, just be there in some capacity.

5. Remind them that you are there for them. Got a funny meme to share? Share it. Text them to let them know you are thinking of them. Arrange an activity that they might enjoy that does not exceed your capacity to help.

6. Accept that you are going to make mistakes. Because we don’t openly talk about our most vulnerable moments, we don’t know what to do with ourselves. We are so terrified of the taboo that is <insert serious life event here> that we make a taboo surrounding the taboo. We rinse and repeat until we isolate the problem enough so that we make it a no-go zone. But who does this really help? You? Your loved one? Future generations who will find themselves in the same situation? You are dealing with a sensitive and maybe even scary topic, mistakes are going to happen. That is okay.

7. Allow the person you care about to move at their own pace. Your job is to support, not to hurry or harangue. If they want to talk, they will, and if they don’t? Tell them that the door is always open and that they are not defined by what happened. Don’t push or force them to talk about anything they don’t want to (see points 1, 2 and 3).

8. Accept that feelings happen. You are wired to feel something about the event, even if it is indirectly. You might cry, get angry, or want to curl up into a ball.  Your job is to be your loved one’s support, not an unfeeling thing. If you feel that the role of support is too much for you, seek help, consider talking to a loved one or a counsellor.

9. Work with vulnerability. The only way to break a taboo is to get vulnerable. Admit that you want to help, but perhaps don’t know what to do. If you are struggling, tell your loved one and ask them for guidance. You want to help so much that you don’t want to harm, our traumas don’t have to leave us feeling divided.

What if I ignore it, or just stay away until things are less “difficult”?

Going dark is a common response. The cold reality is that by taking a step back you redraw the boundaries of your relationship; let’s say that a friend was there for you through a difficult time and you do not reciprocate or keep in touch. That can make things awkward because the new boundaries suggest that the relationship is one-sided. Which may make your friend want to withdraw from the relationship.

Now that’s not to say that you can’t get back in touch, but it does mean that you might have some explaining to do if you want things to go back to the way they were.

Ask yourself; why do I not want to talk about this or see someone who has been affected by it? Am I scared of it happening to me? Do I have rigid perceptions about this type of trauma even though I may not have experienced it myself? Explore and see what the barrier within you doesn’t want you to see.

What if I didn’t know?

Traumas are, by definition, tough. They are hard to go through, sometimes hard to talk about and sometimes they leave the person who has been through the trauma with a lot to work through.

If you didn’t know then you didn’t know. But try and be there once you find out, or if your loved one reaches out to you.

I want to be there for my loved one, but they are so strong and they don’t seem to need my help. What should I do?

Real life is an adventure, and everyone deals with that adventure differently. Which means that while your friend might seem super strong and together, they can still stand to gain from being supported. We all can.

Help can come in many forms. Sometimes something as simple as a text can be enough to help lift someone’s spirits.

Equally, being there for your loved one is about empowering them. When we help others we have to remember that it is about helping them see that life does get real sometimes, but it doesn’t stop them from being who they are, it doesn’t make them a failure and it doesn’t detract from them as a person.

Trauma (and it’s aftermath) is complicated. It is full of conflicting emotions and stumbling blocks. Think outside of the box and consider where your desire for help is coming from?

Does the idea of the trauma itself scare you? Do you feel sorry for your loved one? The reason for these questions is that fear and pity are not conducive to empowerment. Instead, try and come from a place of love. Your friend might be super strong, so perhaps consider how you could bring more love to them at a difficult time.

What if things got real for me too, I can’t support my loved one because I am struggling/need time to recover. Am I a bad person?

No. The healthy aftermath of trauma is finding ways to be more compassionate to yourself. It’s not loving to help someone if it harms you, it’s also not loving to expect someone to do something that they cannot do.

When you are ready, reach out. But make sure that you are able to do so, and that you are doing so in a way that honours you. Perhaps talking about the trauma head on is too much; you can be direct and set up some boundaries about what you both are able -and happy – to talk about or you can opt for a low key meetup that won’t necessarily result in conversations that might be triggering or draining for either of you.

What if my friend isn’t asking for help?

Everyone copes with trauma differently. But it’s best not to expect that someone will ask for help, trauma (and it’s aftermath) is difficult and complicated enough. Finding the strength to reach out is incredible, but most people don’t. Most of us have the expectation that our loved ones will be there for us in some capacity. Be there for your loved one. If you’re unsure of how to, take another look at the checklist.

What do you want from your loved ones when life gets real for you? Is it as simple as being there, or do you need more?

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