When I moved away to college, I had the trunk space of a Dodge Colt to hold all of my worldly possessions. I took a few suitcases of clothes, a box of childhood stuffed animals, and a hand-me-down TV. Both of my older sisters had lugged that ancient 13″ TV to their college dorm rooms, and they were passing it on to me. I remember staring down unconvinced at that beaten up black box and saying, “Do I really need this?”
“Yes, you need it,” my sister told me, shutting the trunk of the car. “Trust me.”
Turns out she was right. That TV became a focal point of how I dealt with living on my own for the first time. I watched the same news my mom watched every morning, which staved off homesickness. My room became a hub for Friday night movie parties on my dorm floor. When my college boyfriend broke up with me, I bought an old video game system and whiled away many lonely hours as I got over him. My sisters had not just given me a TV, they had given me a coping mechanism for a transitional period in my life.
If you look back at your life, you can probably remember a time when someone helped you through a tough change. Whether it be going to college, having marital trouble, or dealing with an illness, people have been there for you. Most of us genuinely want to help others go through similar life experiences that we have. If you find yourself wanting to help a friend cope, here are a few simple do’s and don’ts that you can use to maximize your effort:
Do talk about your experience…
We all feel a little better if we realize we aren’t the first person who has gone through a change. During my pregnancy, I asked all my motherhood friends what to expect so I could prepare myself for labor and beyond. So go ahead and take a walk down memory lane with a friend. They can take comfort in the fact that they are not alone in this experience.
…But don’t expect everyone to feel like you did.
While talking about your experiences, be careful not to appear preachy. A little advice is okay, but dispensing a lot of “you should do’s” can isolate your friend, especially if they don’t cope with things the same way you do. Instead, try to limit your story to just that – your story – and avoid becoming a “Dear Abby” column.
Do give away things that helped you cope…
Like my sister, you can give away specific things that helped you cope with the situation. A friend going through a rough time might need a healthy distraction. Giving away a thoughtful gift like a gift card to your friend’s favorite restaurant is usually appreciated. This can help stave off the pressure of consistently needing to deal with the problem.
…But don’t be offended if your friend doesn’t use it.
Just because you give something away, doesn’t mean your friend has to use it. Maybe your friend doesn’t feel like going out and never uses the gift card. Don’t get upset about it because, again, we all cope with the same situations in the same way. Be satisfied that you are trying to help, and more often than not, your friend will appreciate the thought that went behind the gift even if they don’t need it.
Do make yourself available…
Beyond just one-shot talks and gifts, make yourself available to your friend. This can be as simple as calling once in a while or sending a funny Internet link you know they will appreciate. People going through difficult times can get so wrapped up in stress that they forget they have friends who can help. Some friends might not feel comfortable approaching you first, so making yourself available removes that obstacle.
…But don’t take it personally if your friend doesn’t open up.
Make sure not to overdo how available you are. If you are worried about someone, you may be tempted to call them every hour, but doing so could overload your friend and make them less likely to reach out to you. Instead, keep it subtle but reasonably consistent. Again, just being there can be enough to make a person feel better about the situation.
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I’m not sure what happened to my college TV, but I remember giving my video games away to a close friend once I finished playing them. It felt good to pass a little entertainment on. I honestly don’t know if he ever played those games, but that’s okay. I didn’t need them anymore, and who knows? There’s always a chance it helped him out too, just when he needed it.