21 Ways to Comfort a Friend in Crisis


A guest post by Gail at A Flourishing Life

Life is so rich in offering us a vast array of situations and circumstances, some more challenging than others.  When you are in the position to comfort a friend in crisis, you have been given a wonderful opportunity to express your love and caring.

For some of us, supporting people going through a difficult time can be confusing or awkward, no matter how much we want to be present for them.  Below are some suggestions that might be helpful.  Not all of these will apply to every situation, so use them only if they feel appropriate.

  1. Make contact.  When you find out that someone you know is going through a crisis and you want to support them, make contact.  Call, email, offer to visit.  People in crisis often feel alone and alienated and appreciate when others reach out to them.
  2. Listen to the story.  At the beginning stages of a crisis, everyone needs to tell their story in their own time.  Telling the story is one of the cornerstones of psychological treatment for trauma.  The job of the friend is to listen.  Communicate concern and understanding by repeating the sequence of events and asking for clarification when you need it.  You might say any of the following:  “Would you like to tell me what happened?”  “You must be so angry!”  “I’m so sorry to hear this.” “How are you feeling?”
  3. Be there emotionally.  Think of yourself as a vessel filled with love and support that you are offering out.  Recognize any feelings that you might have about the situation and try to not have them interfere with your ability to show up for your friend.  Keep your personal stories to yourself, along with any judgments or criticisms you might have.
  4. You probably don’t know how your friend feels.  Be careful about saying, “I know how you feel.”  When people are reeling from their own feelings, they think that you can’t possibly understand their experience unless you have actually been there.
  5. Don’t push.  People in crisis can feel completely out of control and can benefit from making choices.  Rather than insisting on a course of action, offer your friend some options to select from.  Even simple ones matter, as in, “Would you like to go now or later?”
  6. Help make decisions.  On the other hand, you might notice that your friend is easily confused and has difficulty making even small decisions.  In this case, you might consider stepping in by preparing a plate of food and offering it or saying, “I think we should….now.  Let’s do it together.”
  7. Offer practical help.  Suggest tasks you might take on such as making calls or doing errands.  Be observant to see what is needed, and ask if you can assist.  Especially focus on what children involved may require.
  8. Bring food.  Eating is one of the first things to go in a crisis (along with sleep).  Have nourishing food available so that your friend is more likely to continue eating regular meals.
  9. Know that emotion comes in waves.   There are no rules about how people should react to crises.  Your friend may feel numb, intensely emotional, or anywhere in between.  All reactions are valid and understandable, even laughter.  Emotions often appear in waves – they come and go.  Be there as a support no matter what your friend is feeling.
  10. Let your friend cry.  Recognize if you are uncomfortable with the level of your friend’s emotions.  Take a breath, and fill your vessel with love and support.  Try to be with the emotions without stifling them.  Your friend will eventually stop crying.
  11. Be a buddy.  I once read a book on breakups that suggested recruiting a “breakup buddy,” a friend who could be called on night and day in those difficult first days.  Offer to be a support buddy to your friend, someone who he can call any time.
  12. Be aware of your triggers.  A crisis is an emotional and stressful time for everyone, making it more likely that people will push each other’s buttons.  If you feel irritated, take a breath and try not to react.  Don’t add fuel to the fire if you can help it.
  13. Get professional help on board.  If your friend is suicidal or highly irrational, don’t hesitate to suggest professional help.  Every community has a suicide hotline, and 911 is always available.
  14. Rally support.  If you know other people who might like to support your friend, contact them to let them know what happened.
  15. You will get through this.  A person in crisis may not be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel when the event first happens.  Hold your friend’s hand, look her in the eye, and say, “You will get through this,” or, “This too shall pass.”  She may not believe you at the time, but it will be helpful to hear.
  16. Be patient.  Your friend may need to tell the story many times or may still be emotional weeks after you would have begun to move on.  Respect that everyone’s process is unique.  However, if, after giving it plenty of time, you think your friend is stuck in the trauma, you might gently ask, “How do you see yourself getting through this?”
  17. Encourage basic functioning.  In the first few days of a crisis, even the most minimal functioning may seem impossible.  Be very gentle in encouraging your friend to take a shower, get dressed, eat regular meals, and take a short walk.  If you know of self-care activities your friend enjoys, such as yoga or going to the gym, suggest these as well, being careful not to sound pushy.
  18. Know that nighttime is often the hardest time for people in crisis.  Call in the evening to check in.  Communicate empathy regarding how difficult a time it is.
  19. Don’t support drinking too much or other reckless behavior.  Some people may want a few drinks, or more, when going through a difficult time.  Your friend will need to find his own way.  You can be the voice of wisdom by suggesting moderation.
  20. Take care of yourself. People can easily become depleted while supporting someone through a crisis.  Pay some attention to your own needs so you can be replenished.  Take breaks, breathe, and get support for yourself.
  21. Check in over time.  Often, at the beginning of a crisis, many people are available to help and support.  Over time, people tend to forget and return to the rhythm of their lives.  Keep your friend in the forefront of your mind, and check in in the weeks or months ahead.

Remember that a crisis is a tender time for everyone.  If your intention to support is clear, but you don’t get it completely right, be very forgiving of yourself.  Showing up with a loving, open heart is by far the best medicine.

How have you helped a friend in crisis?  Any suggestions you would add?  I’d love to hear about your experiences.

Read more from Gail at A Flourishing Life, where she blogs about realizing happiness by freeing ourselves from self-defeating habits.
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{ 15 comments }

1 Tristan Lee October 2, 2009 at 4:05 am

Thanks for this touching post Gail. When a friend is in crisis, it definitely is important that you listen to their story and do your best to empathize with them. You never know what in the world they are feeling or what they are thinking before they were talking to you, so it really can help them out if you are “just there” for them even when you have no idea what they’re going to say to you beforehand.

2 Gail @ A Flourishing Life October 2, 2009 at 4:33 am

That’s right, Tristan. To truly listen to someone, you need to be in a space of openness, of not assuming anything. Then you can really hear your friend’s experience. And when they are truly heard, they feel supported. It helps tremendously.
.-= Gail @ A Flourishing Life´s last blog ..How (and Why) to Make Fear Your Friend =-.

3 Justin- AlittleBetter.net October 2, 2009 at 6:25 am

Thankyou for putting this list together. There are too many times when I haven’t known what to do for friends in tough times beyond just be there.
.-= Justin- AlittleBetter.net´s last blog ..How to Choose and Attract Friends Wisely =-.

4 Karlil October 2, 2009 at 7:08 am

I’m with Justin. Many thanks for putting this list together Gail. I always felt I can do better, but I just don’t know what else to do besides being there for them and giving emotional support.
.-= Karlil´s last blog ..The 17 Conditions Of Lasting Love =-.

5 Gail @ A Flourishing Life October 2, 2009 at 8:51 am

@Karlil, @Justin,
Thanks for your comments. I’m glad you found the list helpful.
.-= Gail @ A Flourishing Life´s last blog ..How (and Why) to Make Fear Your Friend =-.

6 Sami - Life, Laughs & Lemmings October 2, 2009 at 9:30 am

As someone who’s been through an unwanted divorce, I can say that this is really solid advice. I was extremely lucky and had family and friends around me who very much stepped up and supported me. Reading through the list I can see they naturally did a lot of these.

I’ve found in supporting others through crisis, that giving them perspective can help too. When you’re in the middle of a crisis, it’s really hard to see through the fog. Having someone who can see above the fog can help.
.-= Sami – Life, Laughs & Lemmings´s last blog ..A Call for Guest Bloggers to Take the Stage =-.

7 Gail @ A Flourishing Life October 2, 2009 at 9:56 am

Sami,
I’m so glad you had good support during your divorce. People in crisis are often confused and foggy, and it helps to have someone around to offer a clear perspective. Thanks for your addition.
.-= Gail @ A Flourishing Life´s last blog ..How (and Why) to Make Fear Your Friend =-.

8 Patrick October 2, 2009 at 1:15 pm

Great list Gail. Being a friend, just being there in times of turmoil is one of the most needed and finest attributes that we could develop as humans. I really like your pointing at listening to their stories and not falling to fast into categorizing or coming up with standard answers. Sometimes being there is the biggest thing we could do. And if we could do more, then you’ve had some great pointers of what more a friend could do. Thank you.
.-= Patrick´s last blog ..How to Overcome a Situation That’s Out Of Your Control =-.

9 Gail @ A Flourishing Life October 2, 2009 at 2:12 pm

Patrick,
Thanks so much for your comment. Being there is the thread that runs through the list of suggestions. We can be there by listening, preparing food, solving a problem, offering a ride, hugging, etc. As you and others have said, it starts with our true, heartfelt intention to be supportive.
.-= Gail @ A Flourishing Life´s last blog ..How (and Why) to Make Fear Your Friend =-.

10 janice October 3, 2009 at 1:59 am

Thanks Gail,
Sometimes having a list like this to ponder before a situation arises is just what we need to remind us that there are many ways to help folk, depending on what they need. I’m sure this list will stop a lot of folk feeling helpless, something all of us can feel at times when we long to help loved ones and aren’t sure where to start.

Sometimes, depending on the stage our friend is going through, it can help to ask “What do you need from me? How can I help you through this?” As you mention, so many folk are quick to give advice and share personal stories that sometimes we forget to ask. I asked one friend that, many years ago, and they simply replied “Please don’t hate him. Everyone else does and it’s not helping. They’re making me feel worse, stupid because I love him. I’m tired of talking about it. Can we just watch a video and have a glass of wine? Will you make sure I don’t drink too much?”
.-= janice´s last blog ..Berries and Birds =-.

11 Gail @ A Flourishing Life October 3, 2009 at 3:27 am

Janice,
I love the simplicity of what you are suggesting – just asking how you can help and being open to the response. And as you found, you might not expect the answer you hear. Thanks for mentioning this.
.-= Gail @ A Flourishing Life´s last blog ..How (and Why) to Make Fear Your Friend =-.

12 Mahala Mazerov October 3, 2009 at 11:29 am

Gail, this is a beautiful post and the advice is so needed. Many times I think people want to show support but they just don’t know how. I know I lost friends that were dear to me while healing from a severe injury. It hurt my heart to go through such a difficult time *and* feel the didn’t care. Know I know they were just uncomfortable, and through that they drifted away.

One suggestion: “15. You will get through this.” These are wonderful, powerful words. If it’s true for you when you’re comforting a friend, you can add “And I’ll be here for you while you do.” If anyone had said those words to me, I would have been over the moon with gratitude.

Conversely, also on number 15, hearing the words “This too shall pass” always feels like an easy out from someone who can’t possibly understand the depth of what I’m experiencing. Not everything does pass. We just learn to live with the changes.

All in all, a generous and brilliant post.
.-= Mahala Mazerov´s last blog ..Photography as Meditation: The Friday Flower =-.

13 Gail @ A Flourishing Life October 3, 2009 at 12:09 pm

Mahala,
Thank you very much for sharing your perspective and understanding. I can feel your heart through your words. I appreciate your addition to #15 and hear your point about “This too shall pass.” In supporting a friend in crisis, it is very useful to stay connected in a way that we can get a sense of what they need and what they don’t. Wishing you well…
.-= Gail @ A Flourishing Life´s last blog ..How (and Why) to Make Fear Your Friend =-.

14 Yann October 3, 2009 at 12:44 pm

Nice post and great list. It’s not always easy to find the words to tell a friend. One good thing to do is to put itself in his place and think about what kind of help I would like to have if I was in this situation. An other thing is to show the love and compassion you feel for your friend. When you do that with sincerity it’s very powerful.
.-= Yann´s last blog ..YannTessier: 21 Ways to Comfort a Friend in Crisis http://ff.im/-98qeC =-.

15 Gail @ A Flourishing Life October 3, 2009 at 2:46 pm

Thank you for those two beautiful additions to the list, Yann. I agree, showing up with sincerity is hugely powerful, the true medicine we all can benefit from – crisis or not.
.-= Gail @ A Flourishing Life´s last blog ..How (and Why) to Make Fear Your Friend =-.

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