How to be a good support person

flower orchidYou know those awful, heart-sinking times when someone you care about announces terrible or traumatic news?  Be it that they have decided to painfully divorce, their child is very sick, their mom just got in a car accident, or they just received a diagnosis of cancer, all of a sudden you feel helpless.

Allow me to give you a perspective from the other side.  When I was diagnosed with cancer, it was extremely heart-warming that people’s concerns showered over me, but at the same time, it was overwhelming because it solidified that there was something terribly wrong with me.  One dear friend cried with fear for me, and I ended up consoling her!

Lovely offers were constantly showered upon me:  “Is there anything I can do to help?”, “What can I do?”, “Call me if you need anything.”

I think most of us have an innate default response to say “I’m OK” and not ask for help. Even if I felt I needed help, I probably wouldn’t have picked up the phone to ask for it.  At the time I announced the news, I didn’t even know what I needed anyway, so how could I express it?

So, as a support person, you are left feeling helpless. You care about the person, but at the same time, you don’t want to interfere or disturb the person. Do you keep asking what you can do or do you step back and give the person space?

Here’s what I can suggest you do as a support person. These are some of the more important ones in my view:

  1. Ask the question:  “What can I specifically do to help you?”.  This may make her actually think about what she may need.  Realize that the needs change constantly, so ask the question many times during her journey, not just once or twice.
  2. If she just needs time to think, then let her know that you will honour her request for some space, but tell her she should not take the absence of contact as not caring.  Suggest that you will reach out on occasion and that you are always there for the times when she does need a friend. Tell her you care.
  3. Support her in the decisions she may have to make.  Remember that you are not the one going through it, so if you don’t agree with a decision, don’t let your ego get in the way. Instead, see if you can ask questions to help her ensure she is confident and at peace with the decisions she is making.  Help her release any doubt or guilt after the decision has been made.
  4. Realize going through a hard time has many ups and downs.  Sometimes the best medicine is laughter – make her laugh.  I know my standard answer when people asked what they could do for me was ‘just make me laugh’, and I really meant it.  Laughing helped lighten the moment.

I hope this has been helpful.  I know that now when I am supporting someone else, I have a much better sense of how to do it.

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