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Six Ways to Help a Friend or Loved One Going Through a Difficult Time

By Rebecca Lake • Published April 13, 2020 • 4 Min Read

When a friend or loved one is struggling, they may look to you for support and it's important to understand the best ways to help.

Life sometimes brings unexpected or unprecedented events that can be emotionally and mentally trying. A messy divorce, a serious illness, a devastating injury, the loss of a spouse or family member can all be traumatic in their own ways.

Watching someone you care for deal with loss may trigger feelings of helplessness if you’re unsure of what to say or do. Fortunately, there are number of ways to show your support and care for someone who’s going through a traumatic situation.

1. Be Available

Everyone reacts differently during hard times. The Canadian Mental Health Association suggests, “One of the most important things you can do is to simply be there for your loved one. Grief can feel overwhelming, but support and understanding can make a huge difference.”

Your friend may want to talk to you more often than usual or they may pull away and want to be alone. In either case, make sure they know that you’re there for them when and if they want to talk by phone, email, text or even video chat. The situation may feel awkward, but to support your friend, you need to be present, even if you can’t physically be there.

2. Listen Actively

As your friend talks through and processes their emotions, the best thing you can do is actively listen to what they are saying, according to Healthlink BC. Active listening means paying attention to the meaning behind their words, thinking about what they’ve said and responding in a way that shows you understand what they’re trying to communicate.

In some cases, your friend may not need or want you to respond right away or at all. You may have opinions, advice or thoughts to share, but hold on to them and just listen until your friend invites you to join the conversation.

3. Don’t Take Negative Reactions Personally

Traumatic events can trigger lots of emotions; your friend may be feeling angry, anxious, irritable, fearful, sad or emotionally numb. A difficult situation could make them feel helpless or like they’re not in control, which could lead them to lash out negatively towards friends and family.

If that happens, it’s important to remember that those reactions are natural, says the Mental Health Commission of Canada. “It is very important to reassure the person that stress reactions are normal responses to abnormal events.” While it may feel as though the reactions are directed at you, they’re not necessarily personal attacks. You can support your friend by letting them know that it’s okay to feel the way they do and encouraging them to feel their emotions in a healthy way.

4. Help Maintain Structure and Routine

Your friend may feel as if their world has been turned upside down and one way to help them is by reinforcing routines and habits. For instance if a friend is having a difficult time with self-isolation and maybe even the loss of a job, when the time is right you might encourage them to participate in activities or hobbies they enjoyed before like exercising, cooking, or learning something new like knitting or painting.

5. Be Mindful of Your Words

When someone is experiencing grief, there are some things they may not want to hear. As you talk to your friend, consider your words carefully. Avoid offering silver linings, trying to fix the situation or asking for more details about a situation than your friend is willing to share. If you’re not sure what to say, the safest course may be to say nothing at all and just continue listening.

6. Take Care of Yourself

Self-care may be as important for you as it is for your friend during a difficult time. You may want to be there for them 24/7, but you can’t be a good support system if you’re worn down or burned out, according to the Crisis and Trauma Resource Institute. Even professional caregivers may develop compassion fatigue, which is characterized by emotional, mental and physical exhaustion associated with caring for another person through a traumatic event. As you care for your friend, remember to take time for yourself regularly to recharge your batteries.

The mental, physical and emotional health of yourself and your loved ones is important.


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This article is intended as general information only and is not to be relied upon as constituting legal, financial or other professional advice. A professional advisor should be consulted regarding your specific situation. Information presented is believed to be factual and up-to-date but we do not guarantee its accuracy and it should not be regarded as a complete analysis of the subjects discussed. All expressions of opinion reflect the judgment of the authors as of the date of publication and are subject to change. No endorsement of any third parties or their advice, opinions, information, products or services is expressly given or implied by Royal Bank of Canada or any of its affiliates.

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