When Crisis Strikes a Friend: 10 practical things you can do to be a good friend

As a psychotherapist who works with individuals and families dealing with cancer and serious health issues, I have heard of too many friendships that end during the time when friendship is needed the most. Sometimes when someone is going through a crisis such as being diagnosed with cancer, going through a divorce, or experiencing a death in the family, friends don’t know what to say or do… and so they say nothing at all. Often, a significant amount of time passes because of this, and it becomes even more difficult and awkward to say something. Eventually, the friendship fades away with little or no understanding as to what happened (because how can someone make sense of being ignored during the time they need their friends the most?!).

However, even if you are not skilled at knowing what to say, you can still be a good friend to someone going through a crisis with some simple and easy-to-follow advice. Your uncomfortable feelings and fear will fade away once you take the first step and when you truly understand that this is about helping them and not working out your own issues or avoiding confronting your own fears.

1) ACT RIGHT AWAY One of the best things you can do to be a good friend is to act quickly by following some suggestions below. The important thing to remember is that if you act right away, you won’t let time add to your discomfort about not knowing what to say or do. If you have not acted right away but are reading this after some time has passed, it is still not too late to redeem yourself (sample: “I know that I dropped the ball by not reaching out sooner but I have been thinking of you. I wanted to let you know that and to send you my love and support”).

2) PICK UP THE PHONE This may be more difficult for you if you have trouble finding the right words. But it is the most direct way to reach out to your friend. Read on to know more about what to say or not to say.

3) PUT SOMETHING IN WRITING Maybe it is too hard for you to know the right thing to say to your friend right now. So, either write a personal handwritten note or buy a card. You don’t even need to say much. Just the fact that you took the time to write something will let your friend know that you are thinking of them during this difficult time in their life. If you decide to email or text (although that is not my preference), the sole purpose would be to find out when might be a good time to call, to visit, or to help out. You must follow up on this email or text or it is an empty gesture, a “cop out,” and a way to avoid the personal contact.

4) SEND A SMALL GIFT Whether it be flowers, home-baked cookies or a book, the message to your friend is clear. You are thinking of them and wishing them well. Of course, a small note should accompany the gift (sample: “Just a little something to let you know I am thinking of you and wishing you the best during this difficult time”).

5) KEEP IT SIMPLE I have heard too many people explain that the reason they don’t call or reach out to a friend in crisis is because they don’t know what to say. There is nothing wrong with saying that you don’t know what to say! But, you wanted to call and let them know you are thinking of them. It is so simple to say that, and it will mean so much (sample: “I don’t know what to say because I know there are no words that can make things better for you right now. Just know I am here for you and am thinking of you”).

6) OFFER TO HELP Use your personal skills to make a clear and direct offer to help. If your friend’s children know you well, arrange to pick them up from school or drive them to activities. If you are a good cook, prepare a meal for them on a specific night. If you are a good listener, take them to coffee just to “lend an ear”. The best offers are ones that are specific and genuine. It is better to say, “I will make a meal for you so it is one less thing to worry about. Please let me know what night, and I will drop it off.” An open-ended offer such as “I am here to help” or “let me know if I can make you a meal” may sound nice rolling off your tongue but it doesn’t always translate into actually doing something that your friend will take you up on.

7) FOLLOW-UP Just because you have done some of the above suggestions, does not mean that you are done being a friend. Follow-up regularly with them to just “touch base” and let them know you are thinking of them. Call, just to say hi or to tell them something funny. Send an e-mail or a text in between your calls and visits. Don’t let your discomfort add to their pain… just keep in touch.

8) DON’T TRY AND FIX THEIR PROBLEM WITH UNWANTED ADVICE Keep in mind that you don’t need to fix their problem, cheer them up, heal them, or make them feel better…could you imagine if you actually had that ability? Sometimes you just need to listen without solving. That makes your friend feel understood, heard, and loved. Do not give medical advice, an opinion, or suggest holistic, alternative or nutritional therapies to them if they do not ask you for your help with this. Do not compare their health issues with others you know who have gone through something similar. Do not turn use this as an opportunity to discuss your medical or personal situation.

9) DON’T ASK QUESTIONS Don’t ask your friend to explain every medical detail or give you an update on how they are doing. Sometimes the worst question you can ask is, “how are you feeling?” Honestly, how do you think they are feeling? Terrible. There is your answer so there is no need to ask it! Usually the best thing to do is just fill them in on your life, tell them something funny, or even ask their advice with a problem you are having. They have plenty of time in their own head to think about what they are going through…take them away from that for a bit.

10) STAY AWAY FROM CLICHÉS Clichés never make anyone feel better. Among a few to avoid are, “just focus on what is positive in your life”, “everything happens for a reason”, “this too shall pass”, “God will never give more than you can handle”, “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” “at least your loved one had a long and happy life”.

The bottom line is to just “show up” for your friend so they know you are there in their life for a hug, friendship, a shoulder to cry on, a laugh, an errand to be run, or whatever else you can do. However difficult this may seem for you, what they are going through is much more difficult. You can do it!

Lesley Kelman Koeppel, LCSW

Lesley Koeppel is a Clinical Social Worker who has been working in the field for more than 25 years. She graduated from the University of Michigan with a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and New York University with a Masters of Social Work. She maintains a private practice in NYC where she helps her clients achieve their life goals. Her expertise in support groups, individual counseling and oncology helps provide her patients with a unique compassion, understanding and direct approach. She began her career working with oncology patients at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and running support groups for patients dealing with leukemia and lymphoma. She continues to run those same support groups at The Bone Marrow & Cancer Foundation.

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Lesley Koeppel

Therapist/Clinical Social Worker who has been working in the field for more than 25 years.