We've all had that moment of feeling stuck. Someone we know is hurting and we just don't know what to do. Reaching out to a close friend is easy, but what about an acquaintance? What about a casual friend who just lost a baby? A colleague who was diagnosed with cancer? These awful things happen and we often feel conflicted about the appropriateness of how to reach out and what to say.
Often, we make assumptions about people's needs. We assume that they don't want to talk about their personal tragedies. We assume that reaching out will be seen as prying. We assume they already have an emotional support team in place, and we have nothing further to offer.
While some of those assumptions may ring true for some, we can't truly know what someone is going through of what they need, unless we have the courage to ask. I use the word courage intentionally because reaching out to someone can expose both your and their vulnerabilities, and crossing that invisible boundary can be scary. We start to fill our heads with hypothetical scenarios.
What if they feel exposed by me?
What if they aren't ready to talk about it?
What if I'm overstepping my relationship?
Recently, a woman in my social circle was having a serious issue with her husband. Everyone in the community was aware of it, but nobody in our circle felt comfortable reaching out. A lot of those same assumptions were coming out and no one wanted to embarrass her or overstep. There was a lot of discussion about what to do and whether to reach out. One woman decided to reach out to let her know she was there, and available to talk. She was met with gratitude. She was told that just reaching out helped.
Another friend told me about a time that an acquaintance lost a baby. My friend assumed that the last thing this woman would want would be to talk about this very painful experience. When she did finally reach out, her friend told her that talking about it was helpful. Letting people in to her pain was a release that she needed.
I actually lost a dear friend a decade ago when I had major surgery to remove a tumor. I was out of commission for months - being fed through an IV directly to my heart. It was a very difficult time for me and I was amazed at how many friends reached out and asked how they could help. One of my good friends completely disappeared. She and I had been very close, and I had helped support her through a very difficult time in her life. I was surprised not to hear from her, and even more surprised when the silence continued for years. I made assumptions of my own about why she disappeared. I felt hurt. About 3 years after my surgery, I bumped into her on the street. She was trying to avoid catching my eye, but I approached her and said hello. She immediately apologized for disappearing from my life. She said that she had no idea how to support me, what to do or say, and once a long time had passed, it seemed too late to reach out. This surprised me. I didn't need much at the time. The best support came in the form of emails, cards, texts, and visits. Just knowing that people were thinking of me and wishing me well was enough to lift my spirits and make me feel supported and loved. I can't emphasize enough the power of just knowing that you are in someone's thoughts. I forgave my friend at once, but our relationship never recovered.
She felt guilty that she hadn't reached out, and I was disappointed that she hadn't been able at the time to put her own discomfort aside.
I recommend that when you are in doubt about whether or not to reach out to someone who is not a close friend, that you opt for the path of connection and support. There are easy ways to start that don't require too much of you, but can show someone that you care, that you are there for them, and are open to the possibility of providing more support, if needed:
Let them know you are thinking of them. This is the most important step, just letting someone know that you see them. It can help someone feel less alone, and when they are ready to reach out for more support, they know who they can turn to. This could be a text, an email, an in-person conversation or a hand written card that simply says, "I know you are going through a tough time. I just want you to know that I'm hear for you if you need anything." It sounds simple, but those small gestures were gold to me when I was recovering from surgery. Grief, loss and pain are all isolating experiences. It can be easy to lose yourself in your emotions, and these small reminders that there is a community who hasn't forgotten you and is waiting to support you is a vital part of the healing process.
Offer something tangible that can make their life easier. While the person may not be ready for a heart-to-heart, (or maybe they are!) there may be other ways that you can support them during a tough time. You can offer to pick their kids up from school if they are at the hospital, or tied up in court. You can offer to bring a meal, if they are at home grieving. You can offer to check on a neighbor's house or pick up their mail, if they have to leave town suddenly to attend to a sick relative. Someone going through a major event, may not have energy to think through all these logistics. These offerings are not so invasive, but they show that you are available to support them and you've made it easy for them to understand how to best utilize you.
Follow up. This doesn't mean that you should check in obsessively. It means that you can reach out the first time, and then reach out again sometime in the future. Often when something difficult happens, people get support in the beginning, but that support wanes after a while. Checking in once the fog has lifted and see if there is anything you can do for them or if they are ready to talk about it. Be understanding if the answer is no. Trust me, the mere fact that you reached out made a difference.