How to Support Someone Who is Hurting
As some of you may know, my little sister had leukaemia from 2017-2019. “Had” is still a funny word when I say it out loud. Because that was such a major part of my life for what felt like a long, long time. I am so grateful we are in the stage of that journey where I can look back on it and realize the takeaways. But because of those years, when my family lived in the Ronald MacDonald House in Vancouver, we now have many friends (who feel like family) who are either just starting, or are still right in the middle of that part of their journey. Still in the hospital, still struggling every day.
I have learned that pain and suffering is not special or unique. Far too many people experience it far too often.
This is all to say that I am coming from a place of experience on the topic of how to support someone who is hurting. Specifically if that person, or their loved one, is hurting with their health in a serious circumstance. But in 2017 when I first heard the diagnosis, I did not have that experience and I didn’t fully understand how to support someone going through that pain. And before I give you my thoughts, I want to give a shout out to the blog post that first gave me a glimpse into the world of supporting those we care about in tough times: Life All Over The Map – How Can I Help? This post is funny, insightful, and SO TRUE. So definitely take a read!
To start, everyone needs something different when they are hurting. This is not a perfectly accurate list of fail-proof strategies (hint…there is no such thing!) but these are the tips from my perspective (being on the receiving end) and the strategies I use now (on the giving side) that have proven helpful.
The Two Most-Asked Questions That Help The Least
Never ask “What can I do?” or “What do you need?” because NO ONE KNOWS WHAT THEY NEED. Especially when someone has just been delivered bad news. A little disclaimer that I have DEFINITELY said both of these things on numerous occasions – because it FEELS like the right thing to say. But it often makes the person you are trying to support feel helpless or even ostracized. You probably can’t provide them with what they really need (a cure for cancer for example) and they may feel anxious to ask for what they really need (often money) and more than anything else, they probably just have no idea what they need!
So instead of saying “What do you need?” I recommend just providing something. Anything you can. Whether it be a loving text saying “You are so strong and I am so sorry this is happening. I love you and I think about you all the time” or saying “I am at the grocery store and I am going to bring you food – text me if anything specific comes to mind” or offering to pick up kids from school, or dropping off tea/coffee, or asking if you can come over and clean their house.
Start the GoFundMe, plan the fundraiser, put the money together and offer to drop it off to whoever is taking the donations. Choosing something to provide and JUST PROVIDING IT is 100% more helpful than asking what someone needs.
Give with Absolutely No Expectations
Two big takeaways I had during those two years were that when you choose to support someone going through something difficult, we cannot expect a thank you…ever. The other is that we cannot be disappointed if someone does not accept our support. We cannot hold it over anyone’s heads that we helped them when they were struggling. If you are helping someone and you expect them to express appreciation, you are not coming from the right place. It is of course, lovely to be appreciated. But that should never be necessary from your end. There were many times when we did not take people up on their offers to drive kids around or bring us dinner. It wasn’t because we didn’t appreciate the support, it was because we didn’t need that specific help at that time.
Make a Salad
We definitely love lasagna. But as far as what we wanted to eat when everything felt really heavy on our shoulders already? Not lasagna! Honestly the best meals we received were just pasta salads, salads, soups, fruit crumbles, gift cards for booster juice, etc. Of course, anything we received was SO appreciated and we felt so much support with every dish. But just a reminder that everyone needs fresh food in their bellies and it is always a good idea to give something light & healthy for people to eat when the world feels dark and heavy.
If You Ask How Someone is Doing, Be Prepared to Listen
My dad always says this. If you ask “how are you doing?” please please please listen to whatever answer comes out. Do not expect a “doing fine thanks” or a shrug. If you don’t have the time or capacity to listen to someone share their struggles right at that moment – don’t ask! Instead just express support or say you’ve been thinking about them. Asking someone how they are doing is a bigger question than it sounds. Be prepared to listen, empathize, and support if you ask.
Check in Later
One of the most powerful things you can do to help someone who is hurting is to check in on them 3 months after the initial diagnosis or incident. Check in on them 12 months after, 28 months after, even after it seems like everyone has moved on and forgotten. Sometimes those are the moments when people are hurting (or grieving) in silence and it means the world when someone checks in on you when many others have stopped.
I hope you found these tips helpful & if you are hurting, please know that you have people around you that love you and want to support you. Sometimes support isn’t given the exact way you would like it to be, but know that we are all trying our best to help. And if you have someone around you who is hurting, try one of these tips and know that your support is felt and appreciated. Stay strong everyone!