How to Support a Friend Who’s Going Through a Rough Patch

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Let’s get really diplomatic about something quick: Life is weird. Some days are marvelous. Some days feel impossible, and those days can easily blur into weeks, sometimes months. When that happens, we need our community to be there for us to hold our hand and bring us back to the days we can marvel at. And when a dip like this happens to our friends, we need to be the ones reaching out our own hands.

Over the years, my friends and I have covered some rough terrain. Without one another’s generosity and support, those rough patches would have been exceedingly more difficult to trudge through. While my heart aches when my friends’ hearts ache, I find a lot of joy coming up with ways to make them feel loved; to show them that, while I am not going through the same thing they are, I will walk through it with them, hand-in-hand.

It can feel harrowing when someone you love is hurting. We think there’s nothing we can do; we feel helpless to change the situation. It’s true, we may not be able to change what they’re going through, but there are many things we can do to impact the well-being of our friends when they need it the most.

Here are a few things I’ve done for friends going through a rough patch:

A basket of feel-good goods

In my little circle of friends, we’ve done several of these—and I’ve received a few myself. My best friend of twenty-three years is the queen of this, and I learned this skill from her. Almost always, she will include a cozy blanket that is so delicious you’ll want nothing more than to wrap it around yourself in a tight cocoon. It’s an immediate comfort.

Other elements you could consider when pulling together a basket of feel-good goods, in addition to comfort, are taste (a treat like chocolate or a bottle of sparkling water or other delicious beverage); pampering (single-use face masks, little hand lotions, and lip balms are affordable ways to help your friend luxuriate); and entertainment (a book or game).

These don’t need to cost a lot of money, and they don’t need to be jam-packed. Just a few items pulled together and lovingly placed in a basket—the vessel in which the items come is often equally as exciting as the goods to me—will brighten your friend’s day. I know it.

Put a card in the mail

Even if they live five minutes away from you, mail has a particularly cathartic aspect to it in comparison to a text or email. I keep a generous collection of stationery in my home for this reason. A handwritten love note to a friend telling them you’re thinking of them, you’re there, you’re listening—is shamefully simple. I say shamefully because it seems to be a dying action, but it’s so simple! And so rewarding for all parties. I will often slip in one of these cute little cards that my friend can open up. It adds an element of playfulness in addition to surprise; surprise and delight, if you will.

A book of poetry

The Rupi Kaur-style, tiny digestible books of poetry are a thoughtful gift when a friend is going through a tough time. Most recently, I mailed a friend a book by Jennae Cecilia, whose words are simmering with positivity, love, and support. Or there’s Yung Pueblo, who speaks of the human condition in such a way that everybody can see themselves within it. And when times are tough, feeling seen is a welcome feeling.

Surprise coffee drop-off

When the pandemic first separated my loved ones and me, my husband and I found so much thrill in dropping coffees off at our friends’ houses. The joy on their surprised faces! It’s such a simple gesture and yet it’s something they won’t easily forget. I speak from experience because my friends have surprised me with coffee, and it is one of the greatest gifts. If your loved one lives far away, this isn’t going to work. A gift card is not the same, though a little encouragement to get out of the house and treat themselves to a coffee could go a long way.

Encourage their hobby

The pandemic has given me many occasions in which to practice my rough patch uplifting skills. Last summer, there was a moment in which the weight of the pandemic hit a boiling point for my husband. Work was busy and, quite frankly, it was sucking his soul right out of him (he has since changed jobs). He loves to cook but for whatever reason, he hadn’t spent much time in the kitchen recently. As a little pick-me-up, my kids and I gifted him a cookbook from a local Minnesota chef. I wrote him a card, telling him I recognized the weight he was carrying. I encouraged him to return to the kitchen, to do something he loved.

He fell hard for that cookbook, learning all about local foods and ways to prepare them. For his birthday a couple of months later, his parents and I gifted him a cooking class with the author of the cookbook. Every Tuesday night for ten weeks, he participated in an online class, taking notes and trying his hand at new ways to prepare simple dishes. In a way, the cookbook returned him to us. More than the book, more than the foods he learned to prepare, I think it was the act of purchasing the cookbook, the handwritten card encouraging him to get back in the kitchen, the love we put into all of it.

If the person you love is not a big chef, you can nudge them in the direction of any one of their hobbies. Knitting, pottery, running—whatever it is they love to do, quietly encourage them to pick it up again. They may resist at first. In fact, I think resistance is quite likely. But if you can gently push them enough, it will really benefit them.

Life is a collection of moments and interactions, some beautiful, some blistering. It’s short, it’s weird, and it’s unpredictable, but one thing we know about it is that we are meant to do life together.

A night out (or in) together

Of all the ideas for helping a friend, this is my favorite—and possibly the most important. Make a night about your friend. Design a night where your friend can come as themself and talk about what it is they’re feeling, or not talk about what they’re feeling, but just be themself, no expectations at all. My suggestion is to pick a night in collaboration with your friend so that it works for their schedule and they’re not surprised by it (you’ve got to be in the right mindset for a night all about you). Then you take over the rest. Choose the location, which might just be at a house, invite a couple of their close friends, and design a night to show them that they matter; that you care about them; that they are deserving of a night dedicated entirely to them.

Going out to a restaurant or a show, or even someone’s house, may not always be the best option. If that is the case, a night together via Zoom will be a close second. Think of baby showers or birthday celebrations you may have attended in the past couple of years. It could be like that—an event just for that person, and not because she’s having a baby or turning forty. Showing up in support of your loved ones is, in my experience, the best way to help them when going through a rough patch.

At the risk of sounding trite, each of these ideas is more about the thought than anything else. While a basket full of thoughtfully curated goods is wonderful, a heartfelt handwritten card can do just as much work for a friend who is going through something difficult. It is simply about your presence and your willingness to do something without asking them what you can do for them. This part is important: When you ask your friend what they need, or tell them to let you know how you can help, you put the responsibility on them. They don’t need that; what they need is some extra love and some small gestures to remind them how important they are to you.

It must be said that if the rough patch your loved one is going through is deep, dark, and very troublesome, they may need some professional help, which I cannot speak to. Therapy is a great option (I’ve been on a bi-weekly cadence for quite a while now). I will also drop the Suicide Prevention Lifeline website here, with a phone number of 1-800-273-8255.

Life is a collection of moments and interactions, some beautiful, some blistering. It’s short, it’s weird, and it’s unpredictable, but one thing we know about it is that we are meant to do life together. And that means that it’s on us to step in when we see someone we love trudging through a rough patch.

The onus is, truly, on us.

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