Sheryl Sandberg’s post about her experience grieving is so moving, and her willingness to share her thoughts far and wide is admirable. Reading the responses it has gotten has been touching and inspiring. On the off chance any of my lessons learned on this topic help someone else, I'll share what I've found works and what doesn't when trying to support someone going through tough times. The below is a summary of what I wrote while going through some awful life events, full excerpt linked at bottom. I found that asking close friends how to interact with me during these times was important… I did not want to react poorly to well-meaning words that upset me, and they did not know what to say or how to help but deeply wanted to. I also realized how many times I had said exactly the wrong things to others over the years, so wanted to capture what I observed and felt. In short:
Do say: That stinks. Can I help? If so, how?
(or 'this sucks so much,' or any other way to acknowledge the Bad Situation)
Then, listen. Respond to the answer. Bring takeout. Hang out together somewhere pleasant.
Don’t point out problems. Don’t offer verbal solutions or lecture her about what to do (“You should try counseling.” “Why don’t you just fight back?” “Start dating!”). Don’t criticize or state the obvious (“You look tired!”). Don’t pepper her with questions (“What happened after you got to the hospital? Did the police arrive before or after that?”). Don’t pressure her to do what she doesn’t want to do (“Let’s go to the bar and party!”). Don’t minimize or dismiss the problem ("It’ll blow over!" "There’s a silver lining!"). Don’t speculate (“Maybe he is gay.”). Don’t paint the situation as extreme and horrible, even if it is (“What a nightmare!”). Don’t make light of it (“It’ll be better soon!”).
If this seems like a lot to avoid, it is. When we are going through very tough times, we are sensitive, vulnerable, and go through unpredictable emotional cycles. Offer simple, caring support. Less words, not more. It is better than trying to swoop in trying to help, but risk causing hurt or frustration. Be in the present moment with the person rather than causing her to dwell on the problems or trying to solve them (which you almost certainly can’t do with words). This avoid list may be overly cautious. But just asking if you can help is a nice way to reach out first, and go from there.