Because, Jeanne Sutton says, sometimes you just need a reminder on how to be sound.
Female friendships are complex enough at the best of times. So how do you keep up the emotional support at the worst of times? It’s easy to neglect a relationship during a time of incredible stress, to find a situation uncomfortable and use breathing space as an excuse to not be fully present. Sometimes you might feel unable to cope and offer the right type of support to someone battling mental health issues or dealing with a sudden loss. It’s okay to not know what to do, but it’s not okay to do nothing. We talk to four young women about what they needed from their circle when the going got tough and to psychotherapist Fran Buckley on how to be a better friend.
Marion*, 26, recently split from her boyfriend of 18 months. “I’m trying not to make a fuss about it and just get on with things,” she says of her coping mechanism. However, she’s not asking pals to ignore her raw hurt: “Don’t say ‘I’m here if you need me’. That person needs you, it’s not a question of ‘if’. Call, to make plans, drag that person’s ass out of the house. If you leave it up to them to call, they might not, out of fear of being a repetitive nuisance or appearing weak.” Marion says she wants to be reminded why she’s great and someone to watch reality television with. “Listen until there are no more words and force them to read your copy of Eat Pray Love. It’ll help in more ways than you’ll ever know,” she surmises.
What Fran Says
“Ask the friend what do they want, what do they need. People get caught up in trying to find the right thing to say. Avoid suggestions and advice. Often that can make a person feel they’re not handling it right. Make allowances. Support her. Allow her to have that time. A big thing is just to listen. People want to fix a problem, but knowing how to listen to someone is so much more valuable.”
Caoimhe*, 26, suffers from depression and dropped out of college in her early twenties. She kept her internal struggles from her friends as a way to ‘protect’ herself. “I grew up with a mentally unwell mother who suffers from Bipolar and Schizophrenia, and like many families who do too, children of those parents internalise what has happened,” she says of her reluctance to share her story. Her avoidance manifested into being unable to actually want help. “Not talking about it to friends was something I purposely chose to do,” she confesses. There was also the issue of trust. This was her family history she was dealing with.
If Caoimhe could speak to a younger version of herself, she’d tell her “accepting defeat is important. T-A-L-K.” And as for friends watching someone flounder? “Give them your time, kindness has no boundaries.” One standout moment of soundness from a pal? Being given a small handmade gift. “Cards or collages still make me a little weepy,” she smiles.
“It’s always difficult if someone has lots of reasons for not talking. The more you put pressure on someone to talk, then they’ll pull away.Simply let them know you’re there when they want to talk. It can be great relief to let someone know you will listen and you will give them permission to speak.”
Monica*, 27, lost her father suddenly last year, four weeks after moving abroad. She’s still struggling with how her friend group handled her news. “Many didn’t really know what to do. They probably hadn’t been in that situation before,” she admits. At the time, she got “dozens of messages asking if there was anything they could do and saying I was in their thoughts. The messages were the same whether they were from very close friends or acquaintances.”
A lot of people tried giving Monica space. “They asked my partner for the funeral arrangements and at the time I told them there was no need to come,” she says regretfully. “I’m not sure why I did that. I think I just didn’t want to put them out. It was only on the day of the funeral I realised I had nobody there from my close circle. I had nobody else there apart from some school friends. I wish someone just showed up.”
One friend did go out of her way and invited Monica away for a weekend. “We’re both quite stoic so we didn’t talk about the death,” she says of this perfect repose. “It was like a tonic. We watched Graham Norton and drank wine. It was just what I needed, to be away from the family situation for one night.”
When Monica thinks back on her father’s death now, she thinks after the immediate aftermath was when she needed people the most. “That’s when it really hit me and a few weeks later nobody was talking about it anymore,” she remembers. “It felt like everyone had forgotten and expected me to be back to normal.”
“There’s no golden rule with bereavement. Acknowledge the person. Ask them if there’s anything they need. If you’ve never experienced bereavement, it can be a scary time. Emotions can be high. There’s nothing you can say to make anyone feel better. They’ve lost someone. Sit with the person in their pain. And avoid talking from your perspective. People mean well, but it’s said out of anxiousness.”
Niamh O’Donoghue, 23, battled papillary thyroid cancer last year. “I’ve been in and out of the hospital for a very long time for back surgeries, so most of my friends knew the drill,” Niamh, a journalist and blogger (@culturedcuppa) says of the support she’s been offered in recent years as she dealt with kidney disease and severe idiopathic scoliosis.
For whatever reason, the cancer diagnosis threw some people. “I lost contact with some friends because of it. But in saying that, people who I wouldn’t have previously thought of as close friends dedicated loads of time to making me feel better.”
What’s the best thing someone could do for a friends in such a situation? “Inject some normality to the situation,” Niamh says. It’s scary, all the talk of appointment and treatment. “Any illness is lonely, but cancer in particular, can be very isolating – mentally as well as physically. I’ve learned that it’s okay for friends and family to not know how to act when you’ve been given a diagnosis.”
Niamh was aware that this wasn’t a walk in the park for her friends either. How do you be there for someone dealing with their mortality?
“I realised that i wasn’t on that journey by myself. One friend told me that she didn’t know what to do or say to me, but she was sitting beside me in the hospital, and that’s all that I needed.”
Sometimes a cuppa and a chat on the couch is the best mental salve. “Or just to have someone being with you: silence speaks louder than words,” Niamh advises. “Writing letter is always a beautiful way to tell someone something important or if you’re unsure how to talk about what’s going on too.”
“When someone is ill, don’t forget to see the person behind the illness. Keep it simple. Ask them what they need. If they need space, give it, respect it. Remember, someone is in turmoil, they’re experiencing a level of trauma. And when it comes to decisions surrounding treatment options, even if it’s something you disagree with, respect their decision.”
Fran Buckley is a psychotherapist with The Elbow Room, Smithfield, Dublin 7 and specialises in women’s mental health and maternal health. Visit her website affordabletherapy.ie.
This article first appeared in STELLAR’s October issue. Our December issue is on shelves now!