How to Help a Friend Who’s Going Through Something Horrible

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I’d dragged myself to hell (Soho a few days before Christmas) and after a few hours of urgent yet aimless shopping, I stopped at a pie place to refuel. The bell on the door had already jangled shut behind me when I heard my name. There was no way to elegantly extract myself from the otherwise-empty café and so I offered a lukewarm “hey” to a college classmate I hadn’t seen in a year or two. He engaged me in friendly chatter, but instead of answering honestly, I was vague. Home for the holidays, I said. Not up to too much, I told him. Having consumed his piece of banana-cream pie, he suited up to leave, but not before turning to me one more time and saying, “By the way, I’m so sorry about your brother.”

I ate my own piece of pie furiously, going over all the things I wished I’d responded with instead of “thanks.” Why didn’t you just say that in the first place so I didn’t have to pretend to be fine? Making me engage in small talk when you know my brother died less than three weeks ago is cruel and unusual punishment.

Now, a year later, I can see that he hoped he wouldn’t have to bring it up, that instead I’d do that for him and then he could simply offer a sorry and be on his way. But relaying to people that your brother is dead or has recently died is a massive undertaking, one I didn’t want to deal with at an expensive pie shop, in Soho, a few days before Christmas.

People just don’t know what to do with death, I’ve often heard in the year and change since my brother died. And yet how people ought to handle death or devastating news among their friends or family members is way less discussed.

The lengthily titled and newly released There Is No Good Card for This: What to Say and Do When Life Is Scary, Awful, and Unfair to People You Love addresses exactly that — how to not mess up when people need you most. It’s the kind of book that, in the past, I might have picked up in some nice-smelling boutiques and groaned. Empathy tips? Visualization exercises? A blurb from Sheryl Sandberg? Yick. As someone who hates the word “awesome,” this is a book I’d usually be skeptical of.

But given the year I’ve just had, I was curious to see what kind of advice they offered. Turns out, it’s pretty helpful. The book is written by Dr. Kelsey Crowe and Emily McDowell. The former has a doctorate in social welfare and teaches social work; the latter, who also illustrated the book, is the creator of Empathy Cards (“greeting cards for relationships we actually have”), which feature sentiments like “Please let me be the first to punch the next person that tells you everything happens for a reason” and “When life gives you lemons I won’t tell you a story about my cousin’s friend who died of lemons.” Both authors have had cancer; Dr. Crowe lost her only parent to mental illness at 21. I’d say they’re pretty qualified.

Their goal is to get readers past paralysis, uncertainty, and awkwardness to effective compassion. The book offers the you-can-do-it assurance of a self-help title — but with real examples, illustrated breakdowns, and a little bit of etiquette advice, you get the sense that you actually can do it.

If you haven’t recently experienced devastating news or a significant loss, it may seem unnecessary to learn how to listen. But, I often found that when people were supposedly listening to me, they were really just crafting their response. “Often, our first instinct is to help solve the problem,” the authors write, before adding, “This approach works very well if someone loses their iPhone. It really doesn’t work if someone suffers a major loss.”

The pair go through seemingly obvious advice — avoid asking “how are you?” 20 seconds after someone is diagnosed with a brain tumor — but also provide less-obvious nuance. For example, the power of asking “how are you, today?” Even when it was well intentioned, I grew to hate people asking me how I was. I could be brutally honest (“my life is completely ruined” often followed by an embarrassed laugh), go vague (“doing okay” with a bit of a wince), or dodge entirely (“fine-thanks-how-are-you?” said as quickly as possible). Nothing felt right. But “how are you, today?” was a different thing entirely. It’s an acknowledgment of what you’re going through that doesn’t force you to do too much heavy-lifting. When people asked that, I found myself answering easily: I’d mention trouble sleeping, I’d talk about stumbling back into work, or share something about my brother that had come up during the day. In turn, these more tangible answers gave the asker a better foothold. People would recommend a great TV show for late nights, promise to send an article on something I was hoping to write about, or simply nod compassionately.

The illustrated guide “What Kind of Non-Listener Are You?” is a real jolt to all of us who pride ourselves on our listening skills. For example, the Epidemiologist non-listener “asks a lot of clarifying, fact-based questions before learning how someone is feeling” while the Sage “gives wise perspective and advice…when it wasn’t asked for” and the Optimist “always offers a bright-sided perspective.” The book also provides useful answers to questions like “When should I reach out?” “How do I bring it up later without making it weird?” and “Is calling even appropriate anymore?”

The section called “Please Help Me Not Be a Disaster” is probably most useful on a day-to-day basis. People want to be helpful, but they also don’t want to mess up. I really do get it, I was once on the other side fretting over my every word. The bottom line is that it’s better to do than do nothing, and There’s No Good Card For This helps by providing ways to do better. Dr. Crowe and McDowell repeatedly emphasize how valuable the smallest of gestures can be. They detail a bunch pulled from interviews and then ask the reader to consider whether these gestures (grouped by family member, friends, co-workers, strangers) took a lot of time or money, required “an impressive grasp of human psychology” or detailed information on the situation at hand. Turns out, they don’t, really. I still feel extremely grateful for the friend who offered her parent’s HBO GO password and also those who made stumbling, awkward apologies about Mark’s death.

We received flowers, foods, and handwritten notes. Three different people sent artisanal butter, because, well, my family really likes butter. A friend who works at a bakery made a chocolate cake, another emailed a list of books about loss that had helped her, a third invited me to visit in L.A. and when, over breakfast, I mentioned how much I love horses, tracked down a rescue horse we could go feed dinner that very evening. I consider myself extremely lucky.

What’s worse than friends who mess up is those who just disappear. A few weeks may not seem like a long time in the real world, but in grief-land every day felt endless, every hour a mix of sadness, rage, confusion, and pain. Now I know who is on my A-team, whom I can text about celebrity gossip when I need a break, whom I can call sobbing in the middle of the night, and who will surprise me by hanging up my brother’s list of favorite movies in her first apartment. As for those who didn’t show up, it’s really hard to rebuild a friendship when you know someone wasn’t able to be there for you when you needed them the most.

One element that really resonated with me was the authors’ call for specificity. “Let me know if there’s anything I can do” is really different from “I can pick up the kids every day this week” or “Happy to come over Saturday and do laundry!” I don’t have kids and I didn’t need any laundry help, since I wore the same thing every day for weeks on end, but it’s much easier to take someone up on a specific offer than a general one. Another piece of advice I’d give to those trying to support someone grieving is that specificity doesn’t matter only when it comes to offers of help. A lot of people have messaged or emailed me to say “I’m thinking about Mark,” but when someone shared a particular memory, it meant one hundred times more. To know the specific ways people were and are still touched by his life has been one of the most precious gifts I’ve received in the wake of Mark’s death. His friends have compiled photos, scanned letters they got from Mark, shared memories, and continue to stay in touch. I don’t think they have any clue how much this really means to us.

And just because somebody died, you don’t need to sanitize them. I love to hear stories about Mark, especially when they show who he was as a person; fallible and funny, stubborn as hell and incredibly sweet. Alive, mostly. That’s what I’m getting at. It’s nice to be reminded of the way he was alive and continues to impact those of us left in the wake of his death.

One thing I’ll remember going forward is to make sure I’m supporting people beyond the initial bad news. In the week after Mark died, we got so much food that everyone who visited was required to take a least a dozen bagels home with them. A few weeks later, one of my brother Robert’s friends dropped off a homemade meal. By then the cabinets were mostly empty and we were subsisting on takeout. That kind of continued support really means a lot.

I’ve felt most lonely after reaching that society-sanctioned point where unbearable grief is supposed to transform into positive healing and wisdom. So, write down the date and remember to note anniversaries, even if it’s just a text that says, “Whether today is just another day or a particularly hard one, I’m here for you.” I get that people are hesitant to share how they’re memorializing someone in the wake of what they perceive to be the bigger grief of family members, but whenever I’ve heard about how friends or near-strangers were observing Mark’s death, I felt nothing but gratitude.

There’s No Good Card for This starts with two epigraphs. The first is Jane Austen in Northanger Abbey, “There is nothing I would not do for those who are really my friends. I have no notion of loving people by halves; it is not my nature.” The second is “Uhh … wow. Let me know if there’s anything I can do?” attributed to “most of us, most of the time.” By the book’s end, you may not be up to Austen level, but you can definitely do better than that second epigraph, which, let’s be honest, is often a first instinct. I’ve shelved the book for now, but when one of those awful middle-of-the-night calls comes through, I’ll pull it out again.

How to Help a Friend Who’s Going Through Something Horrible