Relationships

How Not to Suck When Your Friends Need You the Most

Here's a hint: An empty platitude never made anyone feel better

I've recently had something sort of rotten happen: the man I live with and I are calling it quits. Even worse, we have to live in the same house together for a few more weeks before I can move out.

I know everyone's got problems, and most of them are worse than mine. But right now this pretty much feels like the worst thing. I just feel so bad.

During times of extreme duress, people tell you to lean on your friends. "Surround yourself with people who love you. Now is where your friends can really come through."

Or where they fail you miserably.

I've been trying to learn from my failed relationship, so some good can come out of it; maybe this experience can be a stepping stone to a new, better version of me. (I think Step One would be to stop saying stupid things like "stepping stone.")

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I'm also trying to learn from my friendships. Because let me tell you, leaning on some of my friends has been … disappointing. Which brings me to the following helpful primer:

How Not to Suck When Your Friends Need You the Most

1. Don't offer the empty, "Let me know if there's anything I can do." I know you want to show you care and that you're thinking of me. I have said this to people, too. But I am so lost right now. I'm not eating (Well, OK, today I had a Filet-O-Fish. Maybe the old appetite's rearing its head.), I'm not sleeping, and in the immortal words of my grandmother, I can't tell my ass from a hole in the ground. (Step Two: Stop quoting grandma. She similarly made almost zero sense.)

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If your friend is in a crisis, think FOR her a little, because she probably can't do it so well right now. When my uncle got sick, my mother and I came home from the hospital to find a casserole in a warming … thing (Step Three: Learn cooking words) that her friend had left us. It was just exactly what we needed.

Show up with groceries and put them all away. Head over there and clean up a little, or offer to write thank-you notes for all the sympathy cards. Just DO something helpful rather than waiting for your in-crisis friend to THINK of what she needs.

2. If you DO say, "If there's anything I can do," mean it. People said that to me, and I said, "If you want to be a help, come help me pack." For two weeks now, I've been wrapping glasses in newspaper, glasses we picked out together to toast our new life. I've been packing away mementos of happier times, taking down pictures he bought me. I've done all of this 100 percent by myself. Alone. "Oh, I wish I could help you pack, but I have kids and dogs," one friend said to me. Yeah, I know you do. So don't offer to do "anything," because you can't.

3. Your friend's crisis is not to be used for entertainment purposes. Some people wrote me, "What happened!?" Not "Are you OK?" Not "Do you need to talk?" Just "Fill me in on the dirt."

The next time any of my friends have a drama, and I am not nearby to be useful, I will not ask for the dirty details while I make popcorn. I plan to write them and say, "Do you want me to call you right now so you can talk? If you don't feel like talking, I will not be hurt." Which leads me to ...

4. Don't make it about you. "Oh, come on. Take a break from packing and come have dinner with me." "I emailed you seven hours ago to see if you're OK. Are you mad at me?"

I'm really going to be careful with this from now on. In the past, if my friend felt bad and I, say, wanted to go to the farmer's market, I'd ask her to go. She'd know I was thinking of her, plus I still got to do what I wanted to do! Win! Then I'd TOTALLY TAKE IT PERSONALLY if she said no.

Right now, I mostly want to be by myself. As of this writing, my breakup is 16 days old. I don't think it's pathological that I want to isolate. In a year? OK, sure, be worried. But the last thing I need is guilt that I don't want to go out, or talk. In fact, I might combine lessons one and four in the future. Do something tangible and useful for my friend, then get the hell out and leave her alone, if that's what she wants.

5. Don't compare what you have going on with what your friend has going on. My favorite line right now is, "I've been married for 30 years, so I have no idea what heartbreak feels like anymore! Heh! [Insert smiley face]." I've also gotten stories about people's bunion pain.

The best thing anyone has done so far is sit with me and just listen. That's it. She listened. No advice, no comparison, just listening with a little empathizing here and there. She is my friendship role model.

6. Platitudes do not help. Ever. "You'll meet someone else." "It's better to have loved and lost …" I know people don't know what to say, so I think a simple, "I'm sorry this is happening to you" followed by NOTHING is the right way to go. At least that's how I plan to do it. A relative of mine lost her child, and someone asked her what she planned to do with all her free time.

No, really.

I, too, have been at a loss for words at a funeral or the hospital or at a bar. It's a terrible, awkward place to be, and you want to be the friend who says the right thing. You want to be the friend who DOES the right thing. I think most of us have good intentions when it comes to this stuff. We mean well, we really do.

Bless our good, kind, open hearts that screw things up royally with misplaced deeds and promises and phrases that we make in the name of trying to help. If I learn one thing in this whole horrible, gut-wrenching, terrible time, it might be how to be nicer to everyone else, how to better be there for people. And that's not such a bad thing to learn, right?

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