How to Help a Hurting Friend

My friend is in a tough spot.  She’s scared, and embarrassed, and doesn’t know what to do.  And she has to tell somebody–it’s killing her to keep the secret!  So she tells me.

And I do what any friend would do–I listen, and hug, and ask what I can do to help.  I can’t fix things for her–as much as I wish I could!–but I can be a good friend to her.

Women need to know how to reach out to each other to get and give help during the tough times. I’ve been thinking a lot about how to help my friend since she told me her story, and this is what I’ve come up with:

1.  Listen.

If you have a friend who’s hurting, offer her a listening ear.  To us action-oriented types, we feel like we aren’t doing anything when we’re “just listening.”  But listening is one of the most helpful things you can do.

Your friend doesn’t expect you to save her marriage, cure her child, or repair her car.  But she does want to feel like she’s important to you.  She wants to know that you care about her enough to listen to her story even though it’s sad and not funny.  She wants to know that you love her despite the bad stuff she’s going through.  She wants to feel understood, and validated.  She may want you to tell her that no, she’s not being crazy, and that yes, her situation sounds tough.

Perhaps most importantly, she wants to know she’s not alone. Tough times can be very isolating–whether it’s because it takes so much time to hold things together when a family member is ill, or because of shame over a troubled marriage.  Isolation makes bad situations worse.  So offer a listening ear, and let your friend know you’re there for her.

And obviously, don’t gossip about your friend’s troubles.

2.  Tell her you care.

When our friends are hurting, we don’t always know the right thing to say–but you have to say something. A simple “I’m so sorry” or “That must be awful” is a million times better than silence (unless it’s silence accompanied by a big hug).

But don’t say too much–I have a tendency to blather on and on when I’m not sure what to say, and I used to stick my foot in my mouth on a regular basis because of it.  I have disciplined myself to say “That must be awful; what can I do to help?” and then to stop talking. I can’t say the wrong thing if I keep my mouth shut! 

3.  Ask how you can help.

A simple “How can I help you?” can show your friend you’re on her team.  Sometimes, the answer may be a simple “just listen” or “pray.”  Sometimes, your friend may need help with something very practical–like dinner, or a carpool run. But the simple gesture of offering help can mean a lot to a hurting friend.

4.  Know that you can’t fix it, and you shouldn’t try.

Healthy boundaries are important.  You can’t fix your friend’s stuff, nor should you try.  You aren’t the one in her marriage, or in her workplace, or in her family.  But you are her friend–so aim to fill that role well, by being present in her time of trouble, by offering a listening ear, and by letting her know you’re on her side.  But ultimately, whatever she’s going through–it’s her problem to solve.  Not yours.

5.  Follow through

If you told your friend you’d do something–whether it’s to pray for her or bring her dinner–do it.  And when the time is right, ask her how things are going.

6.  Be there.

Good friends are there for each other, in good times and bad.  Be there for your hurting friend.

I think we’ve all lived both sides of this equation:  we’ve all been the friend in need, and we’ve been the shoulder to cry on. One of the bright spots of my own tough times has been watching my friends rally to help me through.  There is a joy in knowing you’re not facing your hurt alone, and that there are people in your life who will stand by you in times of trouble.  It’s enough to almost make you grateful for the bad times, just to experience the joys of friendship and love.

Be that kind of friend.

What’s on your list?  How would you reach out to a friend going through a tough time?  How have your friends reached out to you when you’ve been the one in need?

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  1. Amber @ says:

    What an insightful post! I would also add, as a side note, to not let your friends’ situation become too internalized and start affecting you and your family. I have taken on the anger, fear, frustration, etc. that a friend was experiencing and it never turns out well. Sometimes I became more upset about a situation than my friend, which was soooo not helpful. Through a lot of discipline I have learned to be there in the present, but once I enter my private family world, let it go and don’t bring it to my family.

  2. Anne,
    This is great advice. I’ve been on both sides of the equations. “Just being there” is one of the best things a friend can do. It is hard to feel like you’re not doing something when you tend to want to fix things. But, like you said, it is her problem and listening can be the best help possible you can give.

  3. This post could not have been more appropriate today. I just found out this morning that a friend of mine is going through tough situation. I am waiting for her to return my call. I just told my husband 20 minutes ago that I really didn’t know what I should say to her when she does call me back. I have that tendency to try to fix things and blather too, so I don’t want to blow it! I really want her to know that I care.
    Thank you for the helpful and timely post!

  4. Laura says:

    Great post!
    You’re so right about listening and keeping quiet.
    A friend of mine is going through a tough time. I got angry on her behalf and told her what I thought she should do etc. This problem has been going on for awhile and each time we’d chat about it I’d give her “what for”.

    A few weeks back she was telling me that her family was telling her what they thought she should be doing regarding the problem and that she had blown up at them, telling them that they weren’t helping. She just needs to vent since her problem is one that is difficult to solve.
    I thought quickly to myself that I had been doing the same thing to her and from that point on, just became a good listener and comiserater. 🙂


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