In ways, volunteering for the notable role “support person” requires a degree of willingness to accept the helplessness that can accompany the inability to completely relieve another human being’s suffering. When the people we love suffer, we want so badly to reach into their heart and pluck out the pain. Sadly, this physical manifestation of compassion can never come to fruition. Sometimes our supportive efforts are rejected for various reasons. For instance our loved one may not be ready for help or perhaps we are trying to help in the wrong way. The following suggestions may help you help another. They can also help you identify what you need from others when seeking support.
First, be available. Second, be careful not to assume your loved one knows that you are available. Identify the ways you can be reached as well as how and when you can offer support. If you are physically or emotionally unavailable, be direct and honest without being intentionally hurtful.
Listening can be much more powerful that speaking. We frequently want to be the person who provided words of wisdom that really made a difference. Generally, the most supportive part of “being there” for another person involves truly hearing what the other person is saying. Words of wisdom are nothing in comparison to a friend who lends a compassionate ear.
Sometimes people believe their problems burden others and do not seek support. If you sense a person may need help, let them know of your concern. The loved one may not need your help at that time, but it can be helpful to have gentle reminders that someone cares every now and again. Sometimes it is important to reach out more than once.
Often times people reach out by saying something like “let me know if you need anything.” Generally, a statement like this intends to convey support, but it often receives an empty consent (“okay”) followed by a failure to remember the proposal. Instead, specific questions like “how can I help?” or “can I ______?” or “would it help if_________?” are much more effective and, in turn, much more supportive.
We generally do not assume that others empathize with our feelings and many people seem to believe “nobody gets it.” Consequently, it is important to both feel and express empathy. Accepting and acknowledging the pain of another will not take it away, but it can certainly make it more manageable. Validate your friend or family member’s emotions (“it makes sense that you feel sad”). Even if you cannot relate to the situation, try to understand why your friend or family member feels as he/she does. Lastly, if you do not understand the feeling, you can always reflect the feeling (“when I didn’t call, you felt hurt”). Remember, don’t just feel the empathy, communicate it as well.
Steer Clear of Clichés
Most often, clichés do not have the effect we hope they will. Attempt to transform the cliché into a unique comment that authentically conveys concern. For instance, instead of “time heals all wounds” try “I imagine it feels like this pain will last forever.” Lastly, also try to avoid comments like “I understand how you feel.” While not necessarily a cliché, it can have the effect of being an empty expression of empathy or (worse) it can even aggravate a person to identify all the ways you don’t understand. Instead, try something like “I’m sorry” or “it is sad.”
At times, your help may be rejected. If a refusal of support occurs, try not to take it personally. Sometimes people need time to decide the ways in which they need help and even from whom they would like to receive that help. It is perfectly acceptable to ask “how can I help” and give the person a few days to think about the ways you can offer support. After some time has passed, you can try to broach the subject again.
Because the pain of others can often leave us feeling desperate to help, we can easily fall into advice-giving or problem-solving mode. Sometimes people want to brainstorm potential solutions. More often, they do not want guidance and/or no real solutions exist. Before offering advice or suggesting a solution, consider asking if the person wants such feedback (“would it be okay if I made a suggestion?”). If so, make the suggestion(s). If not, try not to take it personally and practice empathizing with your loved one instead.
Be Aware of your Limits
Helping others can be exhausting. Being aware of your own limits will help both you and your loved one. Complete support and availability all day every day will burn you out. It is not selfish to take care of yourself and it will make you a better helper in the long run. Secondly, when you are aware of your own limits and make them known, it leaves little room to compound a person’s pain with the disappointment of unmet expectations.
I hope the above guidelines help the next time you want to support a friend or family member. Furthermore, there will likely be times where loved ones want to support you but are unsure about how to help. As much as we may want people to just know what we want, sometimes we have to explicitly explain our needs to others. We cannot read minds. Sometimes people need to see and hear that you care. Similarly, loved ones may not know how to help and we must communicate the ways they can be supportive.