How to Support a Loved One Through Tough Times



Creative Commons License photo credit: Blush Response

“If you’re going through hell, keep going.” – Winston Churchill

Every now and then life throws you a curve ball. Your best friend gets cancer, your wife loses her job or your daughter breaks up with her first high school love. In these trying times it is important to support your loved one’s and be a rock for them to lean on. But this can be harder than it sounds, especially when you are emotionally affected by the event as well.

In this post I want to show you a few ways to support a loved one through a tough time based on my own experiences. Hopefully it will give you a bit of inspiration for when tough times strike your loved ones.

Dealing with feelings of helplessness

One of the most difficult things about supporting a loved one through a tough time is how utterly helpless you feel. You might be the person’s mother, father, sister or brother – it doesn’t matter – when a loved one is suffering you feel helpless.

Imagine if your spouse was diagnosed with a serious illness tomorrow. This is the person who you have loved and supported for years and years. Someone with whom you have cried, laughed, fought and made love. Someone who has been there for you whenever you were down. And now they are sick. And there is nothing that you can do to change that.

It is a shit feeling.

But it is just a feeling. It is in your head. And it is natural. So let this be a warning to you. When tough times strike someone you love be ready for those feelings of helplessness because they will always arise. But don’t let them get you down. If you let them get you down you won’t be any help to anyone.

How to support a loved one through tough times


Creative Commons License photo credit: halcyonsnow

Now I would like to get into the bulk of this post and share with you some things I have learned over the years about how to support a loved one through tough times. I am by no means an expert on these matters but it seems like I have spent a considerable part of my life trying to support friends and family who were experiencing some hardship. I’ll try to pass on what I have learned.

Don’t judge
When someone is suffering because of a mistake they have made the last thing they want to hear is your judgments. It really doesn’t help the situation at all and, in fact, can make your loved one less likely to come to you for support.

Let’s look at an example. Let’s say your daughter is in high school and she has just fallen in love with the football quarterback. You think he is a bit of a “player” and you know your daughter is going to end up heart broken. After a few months he cheats on her and she comes home in tears, her heart is broken and life cannot go on. If you decide to say “I told you so” she will never come to you again because she is afraid of being judged. The pain she is going through is lesson, she doesn’t need another one from you.

When people are going through suffering because of mistakes they made it is a bad idea to judge them. Just be there for them and don’t inject your values or opinions in the situation unless they ask for them. 99% of the time they won’t want to hear them.

Don’t make it about you
When I was a young man I was fanatically in to soccer. I played for one of the top teams and took it extremely seriously. I would get up and train at 5am every morning before class and then had training at the club after school four times a week. I lived and breathed soccer. And when the finals came around I became what I now consider to be a bit of a monster. I was crazy. I trained so hard and stressed out so much. So you can imagine how I felt when we lost the grand final because I missed a penalty kick…

I will never forget that day as long as I live. When I see my old soccer buddies they still ask me if I have been practicing my penalties! It burns. And I will never forget sitting in the car with my father after the match and hearing him jabber on for what seemed like an hour about how he had been a great sportsman as a teenager and that even he had made mistakes. I really didn’t want to hear about it.

When I look back I realize that, in his own spastic way, he was just trying to help. But at the time it seemed like he just wanted to talk about how much better he was than me. And it made me really angry. When someone is suffering it is really important not to talk about yourself too much. Even if you have been through something similar to what your loved one is going through it is a good idea just to keep quiet. Make sure you just support them. Don’t make it about you.

Take care of yourself too
If you are going through a long term tough time it is important that you take care of yourself as well. If you neglect to do this you will be a tired and emotional wreck and you will struggle to support those around you.

When someone in your family gets sick everybody goes a bit crazy. They mobilize the relatives, take time off work and run around like headless chickens. And this is understandable. A family illness is one of the toughest things anyone can go through. When something tragic is happening people don’t want to stop and sit down because then their mind will automatically turn to the bad stuff. Keeping busy means keeping distracted. But you have to take care of yourself.

If you are going through a tough time make sure you are sleeping properly. Make sure you are eating properly. Make sure you are taking care of yourself. If you get run down you will be less able to support your loved ones.

Get yourself some support
One important part of supporting a loved one is getting some support for yourself. Many people who are helping people through difficult situations neglect to address this issue. And it is a shame. You cannot do it all alone. You cannot take on everybody’s problems without having an outlet. It is just too difficult. If you try to do it alone you could end up breaking down yourself.

I tried to take on a lot of my family’s problems when I was younger. I tried to be the knight in shining armor that saved the day and I tried to be everybody’s rock. But there was a limit to how much I could handle. There was a limit to how much I could absorb without bursting. It is important to acknowledge these limits.

If you are spending a lot of time supporting a loved one I strongly recommend you go and get some counseling. Don’t be afraid to do this. Counselors are not for crazy people. Counselors are for people who need someone to talk to without having to worry about weighing them down with your problems. If your loved one is suffering you might feel like you can’t talk to them because you don’t want them to have more worry. If this is the case book in to see a counselor and have a chat, debrief and get some advice on how to proceed.

Find a source of inspiration
Something that religious people always say after a tough time is that their “faith” got them through. While many non-religious people may find the notion of relying on “faith” to be off-putting there is an extremely good logic to it. If religion is good for anything it is good for giving one strength. But non-religious people can find other non-theistic sources of inspiration to help them reach the other side.

Some people find inspiration in God. Others find inspiration in the Dalai Lama, Gandhi or Oprah. They rely on these people or the ideals that they represent to give them strength. The strength could come from praying to this figure or by just recalling their example and feeling revitalized. During tough times I always find inspiration in my Bodhisattva Vow. This is a vow I was given by my Buddhist teacher where I promised to spend my life working for the benefit of others. I promised to dedicate every thought, word and action to the benefit of other sentient beings and never to put my own selfish pursuits ahead of the needs of others. This gives me great strength during tough times and I feel has made me better equipped to deal with hardships.

Take some time to find something that inspires you. Inspiration is not just for religious or spiritual people. Basketball players, great leaders, doctors, nurses etc. – they all have sources of inspiration that they rely on when things get tough. Make sure you have one too.

Learn as much as you can
Knowledge is power. It is also a powerful way for you to support someone. The more you know about what they are going through the more supportive you will be able to be.

Imagine your wife or husband has depression but you don’t know much about it. You might take all the symptoms to be attacks on you and just think they are just being moody, grumpy or mean. In actual fact they are suffering from a disease and the mood swings and angry responses are symptoms of their illness and need to be dealt with carefully.

If you educate yourself on the problem, whatever it is, you will find yourself better able to deal with the person and more able to support them. This is one of the best pieces of advice I can give you.

Bring everything back to love
Love is an extremely potent thing when you are feeling terrible. In all situations, whatever your loved one is going through make sure they know they are loved.

When you are depressed, sick or sad the best thing in the world is knowing that someone loves you. It might be someone telling you that they love you or you might see it in the way they look at you or the way they treat you. However it is expressed it is very uplifting to know that you are loved.

Make sure you bring everything back to love when you are supporting a loved one. If you don’t quite know what to do just make sure you love them. Make sure they know you love them. Many times you will find that this, in itself, is enough.

Conclusion

Supporting a loved one through a tough time can be extremely difficult. It can be tiring, emotionally draining and sometimes depressing. But it is in these trying times that we learn who our closest friends and family members are. This is where the true bonding occurs and allows us to take our relationships to new heights.

If anyone has any advice, stories or tips for supporting a loved one through and illness or dark time in their life I would love to hear. Please leave a comment – it might really help someone who reads it.




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18 Comments »

Comment by Miss Attica
2008-11-06 09:16:54

My mom was sick with cancer for a year before she died. I remember small things, like her loving the porridge I made for her when she could hardly eat anything, and helping her to the bathroom once, when she couldn’t have made it in time without help. Just being there for her. It was very important to me, and I think it brought her a little comfort as well…

Miss Attica

Comment by The Daily Minder
2008-11-07 23:48:37

I am sorry to hear about your mother Miss Attica. In Buddhism they say that caring for the elderly, your parents and sick people are the best ways to attain great merit and the causes for enlightenment. Looking after your mother while she was sick was a great thing to do.

Thanks for stopping by.

TDM

 
 
Comment by Ian
2008-11-07 19:11:47

I had a bad habit of judging (“I told you so” syndrome) in the past. I learned to turn on the internal filter and listen to the person. Then, when they are done speaking… wait some more. And wait. Only answer if asked, otherwise, just be supportive. Do what you can to help. This is a really good article. I am still not perfect and will occasionally catch myself giving unsolicited advice. If I do, I just drop off mid-sentence and point out that what I had to say was not important, returning focus to the loved one.

Comment by The Daily Minder
2008-11-07 23:45:49

Interesting Ian. Do you find that waiting and not speaking has helped the person more than if you had said something?

Comment by Ian
2008-11-08 00:33:50

Yes. It is far better to remain quiet and attentive, in my experience. If someone wants you to speak, they will direct a question at you, or ask you how you are feeling, etc. I will point out that I make enough words or acknowledgments to let the person know that I am listening. A simple “yes” or “I see” will often suffice. But again, that’s just my experience and it may not apply to every situation.

Comment by The Daily Minder
2008-11-08 00:49:52

Nice one Ian. Thanks for sharing. It’s good to know that others are on the same page and I am not completely crazy!

TDM

Comment by sunshine
2008-11-17 06:01:13

Great comments everyone and I will listen and try them. But my question is about how about us love ones and caretakers that are going thru the same feelings as the one that is going thru a life changing lifestyle? We are going thru it with them and we are dealing with the same helpless feelings, probably even more since we need to be strong for them and help them thru their illness or injuries. I personally feel overwhelmed, depressed and also angry. No, not judgemental at all, just angry at what is happening to both of us.

Any advise would be great. Thank you.

Comment by The Daily Minder
2008-11-17 06:12:07

Perhaps you could tell us more about the problem so we have a better idea about what is going on.

Feel free to email me if you want to discuss it in private.

TDM

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Comment by Winter22
2008-12-24 21:44:46

My sweetheart has been suffering from throat cancer since a while, i just dont know what im supposed to do, i tried some of the tips here, but he’s changed much since his illness, he gets upset so quickly, and whenever i try to comfort him or make some nice jokes to make him forget his illness he just doesnt make any response, im trying to hide my soar feelings, i feel so helpless, im completely broken down inside, but i dont show anything to him, i tell him you are getting better,,etc,, but he says “you need to face the facts, im not getting better, are you crazy?!!” his mood is getting worse, doesnt talk nice with me as he used to, sometimes i feel he wants to keep a distance from me,he is getting so pessimitic, and tries to prepare me for unpleasant things, im soo broken inside, i need help :(what to do?i almsot cry every night, ,and he is not helping me. i love him so much, it suffocates me.

Comment by The Daily Minder
2008-12-25 01:03:34

Hi Winter.

I am so sorry to hear about your husbands illness. Although it can’t really compare to a spouse, my best friend was diagnosed with stage four non-hodkins lymphoma in 2006 so I have some idea about what you are going through. I know how hard it can be for those on the sidelines.

It sounds to me like your husband is really trying to deal with his situation and it is manifesting as him being grumpy and snappy. As I’m sure you understand he is going through a lot. I would highly encourage you to organize some counseling for him if he isn’t already. A professional can really help a lot.

As for you, you don’t need to hide your feeling all the time. If you husband is terminal you need to tell him how you feel while you have the chance. For example, when he says “I’m not getting better” you could perhaps tell him how important it is for the two of you to enjoy what time you have left. Tell him that you don’t need him to prepare you for the worst – you can do that yourself.

The last thing that you MUST do Winter is go and see a professional. The hospitals have counselors who deal with this stuff everyday and they have some great tips to give. If you are struggling to cope you must go and see one. It is so important. Don’t be embarrassed or ashamed – you are suffering. Please make an appointment.

You are in my prayers – I have been thinking about you all morning. I sincerely hope this turns out for the best.

TDM

 
 
Comment by Vonnie
2009-01-09 03:42:50

I want to thank you for your very helpful site. My 27 year old son just found out he has a benign, but unoperable brain tumor. He and his wife are 4 weeks away from becoming first time parents. Your comment about the love really does help. I hope that the love of a new baby will help him get through this. Thanks, again.

Comment by The Daily Minder
2009-01-09 04:18:49

Vonnie –

Thank you for commenting. It means a lot.

I sincerely hope your son is okay. And I hope you are doing okay too.

With love

TDM

 
 
Comment by Ess
2009-03-05 14:02:20

I get depression fits all the time and i dont like having them cus it makes me really down and not only on myself but to others around me aswell.. sumone just has to say one word n i switch but im not violent i end up cryin for days n hours on end n say alot of suicidal things.. My partner tries to help me sayin postitive things but cus i hardly see him in person its hard..cus i seem to calm down faster withc just a cuddle.. sad but its true like said above abit of love of some kind does help alot. I find that having some fresh air does help aswell..I know its not the same as everyones elses comments above but depression can also be a downer..

Comment by Vonnie
2009-03-06 00:20:20

Dear Ess,
I apologize if this is a repeat response. I just want you to know that I care. Depression is very real. Please, please feel free to communicate with me about this. I hope you can get some fresh air. I hope it can help to know that others care. Sometimes I think that people who have great compassion show their depth of feeling in more intense ways than others.
Love to you,
Vonnie

 
 
Comment by natalia
2009-06-22 12:01:21

Thank you for your article. It is really helpful.

I live with my step-grandmother and about a year ago she had lung cancer. Luckily she recovered but started smoking again. She just could not stop herself. She would say she quit and smoke secretly. She always worries about everything no matter how much I and everybody in our family try to support and help her. Smoking was an escape for her. She refused all kinds of professional support also. Only once she accepted but that was because she has trouble sleeping and wanted some sleeping pills. The more she worried the more she smoked and the more she smoked the more guilty she felt. All that smoking, worrying and guilt made her cancer come back. She now feels even more guilty. She doesn’t tell but I just can feel it. I think her thoughts and feelings make it harder for her to recover. I wish there was something I could do to ease her mind, but she is not into talking and distractions do not really have a long term effect.

I am 21 years old. My empathy is very strong, I feel almost everything a person near me feels and I just can not be OK when a person close to me is suffering. I loose weight because of the emotional overload (I’m about 42kg). It’s not because I’m not eating. I just can’t make people understand that. But I don’t have much of a problem with this and I can always find relief in art (I make illustrations). I just want to help my grandmother because I feel like all her pain is not just the cancer, it is some kind of burden she has been carrying for a long time. Its weight is everywhere. Any suggestions would be appreciated.

thanks and love

 
Comment by The Daily Minder
2009-06-24 10:09:52

Hi Natalia.

I am sorry to hear about your grandma.

One of the tough lessons of growing up is that you can’t change people. You can wish them well, lead by example and gently talk to them but that is it. If she doesn’t want to change by herself she never will. As such you should not beat yourself up over things you cannot change.

I know this is not much help but you must learn to relax into the compassion. Don’t let it turn into depression and anxiety because then it becomes a negative – two people are suffering.

And we’ll always be here for a chat. You can add me on Twitter if you need to talk.

TDM

 
Comment by Support
2010-06-17 04:46:26

my father has been a very honest person throughout his life… he retired a few years back… but unfortunately he is now falsely framed in a civil case, which doesn’t really have a base… but still he is deppressed for the place he gave his entire life has cheated him… it is not at all a difficult case to win for we stand on the right side but in India cases are rarely solved quickly… as we belong to a middle-class family we cannot afford to spend much for too long… please advice me as how to boost up his morals…he is doesn’t like to talk much regarding this matter for this reminds to him that he is been cheated…

 
Comment by barb
2011-04-05 06:37:32

I had the misfortune to reach out for help to the wrong relative when my husband was very ill about three weeks ago. It’s too bad, when we are so desperate for help, we don’t always choose the right people to reach out, too. I am still stung from how this relative (his relative) treated me, and I won’t ever trust her again. I am trying to forgive her, so that I don’t become a bitter person, but it’s been three weeks and I’m not there yet. That doesn’t mean I won’t keep trying to, though. I can forgive her, and still not trust her, I think. I’d be really stupid to trust her again.

 
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