Supporting Someone In The Hard Seasons of Life
Life can be sunshine, rainbows, and roses. And of course, that’s what we hope for. Unfortunately though, life doesn’t always let us decide the road we travel, and often, our plans are rudely interrupted by tragedy. This can take many forms – divorce, miscarriage, a terminal illness, a chronic health diagnosis, death of a loved one – just to name a few. We may be blessed to not travel these roads ourselves, but the likelihood is that over the course of our lives we will walk beside somebody who needs to navigate some of the hardest things life can throw at us.
Let me introduce myself. My name is Skye. I’m a 43-year-old mother of two gorgeous girls and we have called the Blue Mountains home for 7 years. I’ve spent the last 2 ½ years navigating the hardest road I could have imagined for myself in life. My husband of 19 years, Nathan, died suddenly and tragically in an avalanche in 2018. We were both 40 years old. As perhaps you can imagine, our lives changed in an instant that day, and I have learnt new truths and lessons about life, and seen the best and worst of humanity along the way. This experience has taught me many things. One of those things has been the realisation that our communities are largely ill-equipped nor have the tools to know how to support friends and loved ones if (or when, as the case may be) they needed to navigate their own hard seasons. I have had to admit to myself that this was true of me also, prior to 2018. It has only been through walking this journey myself that I’ve had my eyes opened to what supporting someone really looks like.
So how do we learn these skills? One of the most meaningful ways is to listen to those around us who have needed support and help, and glean from the lived experience of others. If you were like me and you find yourself wanting to support someone experiencing a hard season of life and not really knowing how best to do that – here are a few insights from my own life that may give some perspective and practical ideas on how to be present for your person in need:
- Show up. Please. Your person needs you in this season. It will undoubtedly be confronting, and scary, and hard, and unknown and you may feel ill-equipped. You may make mistakes. It’s okay to say “I don’t know what I’m doing or what you need”.Here’s the thing though – your person likely has never been through this before either and a lot of the time they will also be questioning what they need! Now is not the time to run away. Put on your brave, big girls pants and decide to be present for as long as it takes.
- Choose to up skill yourself. We live in an age where we have information at our fingertips. I have friends who intentionally bought books and googled resources to understand grief, trauma, sudden loss, and being widowed – I call them my golden people. Choose to learn, and grow, and expand.
- Keep showing up. Forever and always. This is the long road, friends. Your loved one/friend – the loss/trauma/experience they have lived through will change them, forever. Even years on when the acute experience has subsided, they hold pain and scars that are often hidden away. They need your love and care, gentle gloves and thoughtfulness even when the world starts moving again for them, and the rest of the world moves on.
- Provide space just to listen to their experience. Even if you’ve lived through a similar experience, allowing a person to just verbalise what they’re going through can be a powerful gift. You don’t need to have answers. In fact, anything that feels like an ‘answer’ can often feel empty and meaningless. It’s enough just to nod your head, cry with them, embrace them, and tell them that you love them.
- If your person in need has experienced the death of a loved one, it is sosignificant to ensure that the one they love who has passed away is not forgotten. Say their name, share stories of them, ask them questions about their life together. And if you’re not sure if this is the right thing to be doing – just ask! “I’ve got a story to share about your loved one, is it okay if I share it with you today?”.
- Ask them what they need. Offer examples from a list of things you know you have capacity to do. Some things that friends helped me with in the early days of navigating debilitating grief as a new single parent were:
- Showing up with essential groceries every now and then and dropping them at my doorstep
- Driving me to and from my Psychologist appointments because I did not have the capacity to do this with the emotional toll that it would take
- Mowing my lawns, until I could navigate finding service to do this for me
- Fixing the odd jobs around the house that I didn’t have the skills to do
- Starting a ‘Go Fund Me’ fundraising page to help with initial unexpected expenses
- Offering to take my girls gift shopping for Mother’s Day and Christmas, or taking them out for play dates to give me some rest time
- Washing my car
- Taking our dirty laundry and returning it washed, dried, and folded
- Changing the bedsheets when I had no energy to do this
- Gifting me a “Hello Fresh” box of meals for a couple of weeks to make meal prep easier
- Taking my girls to and from school when getting out of my pajamas was impossible
- Meals!! Meals, meals, and more meals. This never grows old, even a couple of years on
- Even if you are long distance to the person there are still practical things you can do – my family in the USA sometimes do an online order for a takeaway meal and have it delivered for us! Gift cards for self care (such as massages) is also a great option.
- Packages of activities for my children during the school holidays when filling time as a solo parent can be tough
- Inviting the person/family into your weekend plans – “we’re going on bushwalk on Saturday – would you like to come?”
There are so many other creative ways to show care and support to someone – you know your person best. And if you’re not sure, there’s no shame in saying that and asking for their ideas! But along with the ‘do’s, there are also some things that are better to avoid doing…
- Put the ball in their court with “if there’s anything you need let me know”. Here’s the thing – your person won’t do that. Generally, in life, we are fiercely independent and it’s very hard and humbling to ask for help. This doesn’t change even when we’re in a place of legitimately needing help! Your person has so much already to juggle – their emotional needs and the needs of their family, the logistics of normal life with the added ‘to-dos’ of sorting our their acute situation – deciphering what and how much they can ask of you is often just too much. They don’t want to be a burden. They will not ask you! Be bold. Be specific. Suggest some things you are happy and have capacity to do, and let them choose.
- Assume you know what they need or how they feel. It’s okay to ask them “what is it that you need today?”; or “I have two hours this week that I’d love to use to support you – how best can I do that”?
- Try and be their psychologist or try to pep them up with positive motivational quotes. You don’t need to have all, or any, of the answers. Release yourself from that expectation! These are not helpful when someone is in the midst of deep pain and trauma, and actually unintentionally is saying to someone “please, I can’t listen to your pain anymore, it’s time to be happy”. This often makes a person feel like their true authentic selves are too much to handle, and thus they hide away. As a friend we understand this is most often not your intention, and comes out of so desperately wanting to fix their pain. Unfortunately though, pain can’t be ‘fixed’ – just travelled through. Holding space for the expression of their true feelings as they travel this road is such a gift, even if you stay silent or can only respond with “I love you, and I’m here for you”.
- Assume that somebody has so much support that they don’t need you. It may look from the outside that a person has an army of support, but this isn’t always the truth. What is true, is that many support people are present in the beginning and quickly drift away once the initial shock has passed. If you have the capacity and desire, choose to be a friend who commits to being present for the long haul. This type of friendship and support is rare and priceless.
- Take things personally. If your person pulls away for a season, or says no to a coffee catch up a few weeks in a row, or asks for some space – this is very rarely to do with you. They are trying to navigate a very hard life experience that doesn’t have a road map, and sometimes that means needing space. Just keep touching base every now and then so that your person knows you are still present, and ready to step in when they come out of their cave.
- Ignore the loss/hard situation. I’ve been in some conversations with friends where we’ve talked about everything else in life EXCEPT my grief and how I’m navigating that. This has felt very hard – especially when surviving my grief has been the only thing I’ve been able to do at times. It’s hard to have such a huge part of your life ignored. Often this happens because as a friend you’re not sure if asking about the hard things will be unwelcome – if you’re scared and don’t know if your person wants to talk about it or not, it’s okay to ask them! “I’m interested to hear how you’re going this week, if you want to talk about it”. This gives them space to choose, without feeling ignored.
- The question “how are you” has always been a difficult one for me to answer. Does my friend really want to know the truth about all the hard things? Or are they asking out of social habit but don’t really want to know how I am? Is it not obvious that I’d be struggling right now? If you ask your person “how are you” be prepared to hear the truth! More timely and easier questions to answer are specific – “How are you today”? Have you been eating? Have you been sleeping? These type of questions will give you a meaningful insight into how your person is navigating their situation on a day to day basis.
I think we’d all agree that navigating the painful and challenging parts of life doesn’t have an instruction booklet. These seasons are intensely difficult both as the person going through them and the support people who walk alongside. Our needs during these times can fluctuate and be obscure and unknown. If you’re still here reading – your person is fortunate to have you in their lives – a person who is willing step into the hard and scary places and to grow, and learn, and flex. Being held in these seasons by a community of people makes the weight so much easier to carry – because LOVE is felt in a real way. And love really is the answer to so many of these challenges – not silver linings, or empty answers – just expressed and demonstrated LOVE.
I write more about my life and my story on my socials and my website – you can find me at www.thisthingcalledlife.com.au www.facebook.com/thisthingcalledlifeskyedeutschbein and https://www.instagram.com/this.thingcalledlife/ I’d love to meet you over there!