11 Ways to Support a Loved One Through Difficult Times

Just under 4 years ago, my mum started attending a local meditation class and tried to persuade me to join her as she thought it would really benefit me. At the time I was struggling through my A-levels and battling my un-diagnosed M.E.. Like most people, I refused to listen to the advice given to me and stubbornly declined. A year and a half later, after dropping out of school and receiving my M.E. diagnosis, I had reached a point of desperation to try anything and finally agreed to go to meditation. It’s safe to say I think you know the rest of the story – the meditation class completely changed my life. Looking back, I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if I had listened to my mum’s advice earlier – would things be different now? The problem was I wasn’t ready to accept help at that time, I needed that year and a half to reach a stage of readiness within myself to make that decision. I am forever grateful to my mum for allowing me that year and a half to come to the decision on my own, because I now know if I had gone when my mum had first suggested it when I wasn’t ready, it would not have had the same impact on me and I doubt I would be sharing this story today.

None of us like seeing our loved ones in pain, and we want more than anything to help them. This could be anything, from seeing a loved one going through an illness, break-up, bereavement, or struggling to make a big decision. But the problem is, throwing your wisdom at them and telling them what they should and shouldn’t do isn’t going to work. You cannot force someone to do something even if you think it will help them! We need to take a different approach. One where softness replaces sternness, where “walking our walk” is more important than “talking our talk”, where we patiently allow our loved ones to come to us in their own time. The thing to remember is that no one can make a decision on behalf of someone else, they have to do that for themselves. There is a quote by the Dalai Lama which sums this up perfectly:

“The way the Buddha helps people is by showing them the path to cessation of suffering, but that it’s up to them to make the effort to follow the path.”

Here are some ways you can support your loved ones through difficult times:

  1. Don’t give unwanted advice – It’s only natural to want to share our wisdom with the people around us, but unfortunately this usually has the opposite result from what we intend. The problem is, no one likes to be told what to do. As soon as we are told we “should” do something, we automatically turn our backs and ignore the advice given. We are very stubborn human beings, and unless the person we are giving advice to has asked for it and is willingly going to listen, it’s like talking to a brick wall. I have been both on the receiving and giving end of advice, and I now understand the person who’s receiving the advice must want the advice before you give it, otherwise there might be some huffing and puffing between you both, and it’s very likely you might alienate your loved one in the process. The person who you want to give advice to will listen eventually, but this process may take days, weeks, months, or years. Let them come around on their own, and when the time is right they will let you know they are willing to listen.
  1. Casually “drop” ideas – If you think you know something that would really help your loved one, the best way to tell them is to casually “drop” the idea into a conversation. This means you are avoiding giving unwanted advice, as you are not actually giving advice! Instead you are simply implanting an idea into their head, so they can then go away and think it over themselves. When you do this, try to avoid anything direct such as “you should try meditation.” Instead, rephrase it as, “I’ve heard wonderful things about meditation, it sounds like it can really benefit some people”, and leave it at that. Just the mention of meditation can give your loved one the idea and they can mull it over. If they do want to try what you casually suggested, try not to imply it was your idea all along as this can be very off-putting, just allow them to explore the idea in their own time and resist the urge to prove you were right.
  1. Be the example –It’s all fine telling someone what they should and shouldn’t do, but unless you practise what you preach, they are very unlikely to want to listen to you. We all know someone who has given us advice and yet they don’t follow their own advice themselves, and it’s left you feeling confused and frustrated because if they don’t do it why should you? The best way to inspire someone is by being the living, breathing example. Someone is a million times more likely to follow you by example than if you simply boss and lecture them. If you are encouraging someone to lead a healthier, mood-boosting lifestyle, then you too need to maintain a positive, healthy lifestyle. If a loved one needs to make life changes, it can also be a great help if you make the same changes too. This could be eating healthily with them, encouraging them to do exercise with you, or you could offer to go with them to a meditation or yoga class. This helps them to feel that they’re not the odd one out and makes the lifestyle changes easier to stick with, and it will also benefit you too!

  1. Understand your limits – It’s understandable to feel frustrated and distressed when someone you love is clearly struggling and won’t reach out, but it is important you accept and recognise that there are always limits to what you can do to support another person. You cannot force someone to talk to you, you cannot force someone to get help, nor can you “fix” them. The truth is that no matter how hard you try, you cannot save someone else or make them better. Only they can do that themselves. Instead, you can support them and give them love and understanding, which is what they will need most from you.
  1. Let them know that you are one hundred percent there for them – When someone is going through suffering, whether that is physical or mental, they can often feel isolated and lonely. By simply letting your loved one know you are truly there for them can be incredibly powerful. You could do this by sending text messages saying, “thinking of you”, sending them some flowers, giving them a phone call, or even sending them thoughts of love at the end of your meditation. It only takes a minute or two out of your day to send that text, but it can really make your loved one’s day receiving it.
  1. Give them space – I see so many people out there, especially parents, so desperately wanting to save and rescue their children every time they are in need, but by doing that you are stopping them from going through whatever it is they need to go through. You are interfering with their growth process and not allowing them to learn from the experience. Giving them space will allow them to understand how to deal with the situation if it should ever occur again in the future. For example, if a loved one is going through a break-up, by giving them space it means they can reflect on their relationship, figure out where things went wrong and appreciate what to look for in future relationships. It is also important that by giving them space you allow them to come to you as it can take time for someone to feel able to talk openly, and putting pressure on them to talk might make them feel less comfortable telling you about their experiences. Remember, there will be times when your loved one needs you, but there will also be times when they need to be alone.
  1. Stay soft – When someone is going through suffering, they may become distant, sad or angry. It’s very easy to lose your cool when someone acts like this to you, but unfortunately pain and suffering can bring out our worst qualities. It is very important you avoid the “tough-love” approach and you remain calm, as your loved one will need to feel that their relationship with you is a safe emotional space. Always speak to them from the heart and with compassion. They are more likely going to turn to you when you are kind and compassionate, and getting angry at them will simply solve nothing. Although it can be difficult to support your loved one this way at times, it is completely worth the effort.
  1. Stay patient – “Everyone’s path is different and they must walk it at their own pace.” Patience is a pivotal part of supporting your loved one. When your patient with your loved one, you’re letting them know that is doesn’t matter how long it will take them to get better, or how many treatments there will be, or the difficulties that will come along the way, because you will always be there and that it’s okay to take your time. By letting them see your patience, especially if the progress is slow or stalled, it will give your loved one hope and comfort and will help alleviate their feelings of guilt about not getting well quickly. You need to make sure you have realistic expectations about the situation, for example, if you’re dealing with someone who has a chronic-illness, remember there is no short-term fix. Things will take time to heal and to get better, nothing ever happens overnight.
  1. Don’t be annoying – When you discover something that works for you, or have a friend telling you this and this helped their loved one, it’s very tempting to preach this to your loved one and wanting them to jump aboard. But once again we come back to the point, no one likes being told what to do, and even more so, no one likes being told what to do on repeat. Constantly bringing up treatments, cures, or things they should do etc… with your loved one will simply annoy them and they will very likely push you away. Know your limits and resist the urge to keep bringing it up.
  1. Listen – Sometimes the best thing friends and family can do is simply listen. You don’t need to say anything, just being willing to listen to their problems will help them feel less alone and isolated. If they’re finding it difficult to talk, let them know that you are there when they are ready. Remember, offering support is not the same as giving advice. Simply listen and give them space to talk it out without trying to get your advice or opinion into the conversation. As I’ve said numerous times now, that conversation will come later when they are ready.
  1. Look after yourself – Looking after someone else can put a big strain on your own mental health, which is why it is so important you look after your own wellbeing. This means taking a break when you need it, talking to someone you trust about how you’re feeling, and being realistic about what you can do. Looking after yourself is another way to be a great example to your loved one to show them just how important it is to look after your own health and take time out for yourself. If they see you looking after yourself, it is very likely they might follow your lead and consequently start spending the time to look after themselves better. To read more about “Part 1: Why You Need to Practise Being Kind to Yourself”, click here, and to read about “Part 2: 12 Ways to Practise Being Kind to Yourself”, click here.

If you enjoyed this post, please feel free to share it with your loved ones so they can also know how to support you through times difficult times.

Metta, E xx

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