Helping Friends in Need During the Holidays

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How to transform your good intentions into real support

Helping a Friend Through Divorce
“Divorce is one of the most gut-wrenching experiences a person can go through,” says Robert Emery, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville, and the author of The Truth About Children and Divorce. “Just because it’s common doesn’t mean it’s easy.”

What Not to Do: When friends told Lucy Barnes, a New York City–based clothing designer with three children, that she was better off without her husband, they made things worse. “I’d wind up defending the man who had broken my heart because a part of me still loved him,” she says. “It’s not helpful to say ‘What a jerk,'” Emery says. “You’re also saying ‘How could you spend so much time with such a jerk?'” Also unhelpful to Barnes were the friends who said “You’ll meet someone else” right after the separation. “Losing your partner after so many years is like losing a part of yourself,” she says. “Finding someone else was not my first thought. In fact, it was unsettling.”

What to Do: “To be able to vent, cry, or panic and not be scolded or cut off was a safety vest,” Barnes says. Emery agrees. “Those going through divorce are in the chaos of lost hopes and dreams,” he explains. “Thinking out loud helps them sort things out. She doesn’t want easy answers. She wants someone to listen.” She also needs to get her mind off the drama from time to time. “Having a friend say ‘Let’s go see a movie’ was good,” says Barnes. “But the best friends were those who made me laugh.”

Helping a Friend Through Serious Illness
People have vastly different responses to their own illnesses. “Some people find comfort in talking about what’s going on, while others feel vulnerable and out of control,” says psychologist Raymond Crowel, vice president of mental health and substance abuse at the National Mental Health Association, in Alexandria, Virginia.

What Not to Do: When Jenny Feder of New York City was given a diagnosis of ovarian cancer in 1981, she called a friend who had survived breast cancer for support. “I called her from the hospital, and we had a short conversation,” Feder recalls. “And then I never heard from her.” Backing away from a sick person is the worst thing to do. “Just show up,” says Alexander Levy, a psychologist and the author of The Orphaned Adult (Perseus, $16, www.amazon.com). “If you’re afraid, then admit it.” But also be careful about rushing in with too much advice. Barbara Klein, a publicist in Pittsburgh, received a diagnosis of breast cancer in March 2005, weeks after singer Melissa Etheridge, bald from her battle with cancer, performed at the Grammy Awards. Klein’s friends seized on Etheridge as a symbol of strength, implying that Klein, too, could be powerful in the face of the disease. But it was too much pressure. “Being sick is hard,” says Klein, who is now cancer-free. “Maybe Melissa took 20 Valiums to get up onstage. For me, just getting through the day was difficult enough.”

What to Do: “Friends have to actively listen for clues as to how to help and take the lead from the sick person,” says Crowel. “Then do things that fit your skills or abilities.” While Feder’s close friend abandoned her, another friend supported her daily. “I met the writer Laurie Colwin through the bookstore I owned,” Feder recalls. “From the moment she heard I was sick, Laurie mailed me something every day.” Colwin, who died of heart failure in 1992, would often send a recipe or a jar of pesto and always a short note. “Laurie could never understand how I felt, and she never tried,” says Feder, who has been cancer-free for 20 years. “I loved her for it.” Whereas Feder needed emotional support but physical distance from her friends, Klein craved company. “I was open to any and all offers of help,” she says. One friend accompanied her to all her chemotherapy treatments, while another offered her a room in her country house as a weekend retreat. A massage-therapist friend gave her a weekly massage. “I drew strength from everyone,” Klein says. “If someone wanted to meet for a cup of coffee, I’d say, ‘Let’s go.'”

Helping a Friend Through a Family Member’s Illness
When a loved one is sick, the caretakers’ needs and feelings are often overlooked. “A family’s life gets turned upside down,” says psychologist Raymond Crowel. “And the caretakers can become overwhelmed by their responsibilities. As a result, they can get angry and frustrated and depressed.”

What Not to Do: Last February, Susanne Sanchez spent six days in a Miami hospital while Ben, one of her three-year-old triplets, underwent brain surgery for acute headaches. Several friends unintentionally fueled her anxiety. “One called and asked, ‘Are you sure you found the best surgeon?'” Sanchez says. “I was already a nervous wreck. That made it worse.” And while she knew that friends who said “If there’s anything I can do, let me know” meant well, she says, “it was so vague. I wanted to say, ‘Can you take the boys for the weekend?’ but was afraid of asking too much.” Another comment that irked her was “I don’t know how you do it,” which to her sounded a bit like “I’m so glad I’m not in that position.” She says, “I’d reply tersely, ‘I have no other choice.'”

What to Do: The most helpful friends offered specific things. “My neighbor called to say she could babysit for two hours one afternoon,” Sanchez says. “I knew she really meant it.” One friend called from the grocery store and said, “Open your fridge and tell me what you need,” while another called to say she was dropping off a dish of lasagna for dinner. “The friends who focused on the boring day-to-day necessities were the best,” Sanchez says. In the case of Analiese Paik of Fairfield, Connecticut, whose husband, Sungkey, suffered a recurrence of liver cancer in 2001, one neighbor helped save his life. “Sharon had worked at an oncologist’s office and insisted we see him for a second opinion. He told my husband to get on as many transplant lists as possible,” Paik recalls. Paik’s sister-in-law researched the best transplant centers and narrowed them down to the top three. Sungkey was accepted at the Mayo Clinic in Florida, where he had a successful transplant in 2002. And friends simply let Paik vent. “I felt so under-appreciated,” she says. “To be able to say ‘I’m angry, too!’ and not be judged saved me.”

Resource: by Real Simple Magazine

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