Sep 032013

The old saying A friend in need is a friend indeed is so true: someone who is there for you in your hour of need, and not just in the good times, is a real friend. The person who puts you up when your house burns down, gives you a lift when your car won’t start or looks after your children at short notice, the person willing to solve a sudden urgent problem for you, is the sort of person you want in your life. Sadly, however, such people are not always available. And, looking at it from the other side, perhaps we are not always there for our friends when they need us.

When the issue is a practical one, as in the examples above, it’s generally pretty clear what is required and, assuming we are present and in a position to provide assistance, the only obstacle to smoothing our friend’s path is the inconvenience it causes us. We’ve made our plans and having to change them at the last minute to accommodate the shake-up in somebody else’s life may be too much of a pain in the posterior. This is a clear case when Do as you would be done by (as mentioned a few weeks ago) is an excellent dictum: if we want people to help us when we have a practical emergency, we’ve got to help them when they suffer one. Even if we never get to exchange favours with the specific individuals to whose rescue we come, it’s good karma.

When the issue is an emotional one, it all gets much more complicated. Even if we want to help, we may be put off for a number of reasons, most of which boil down to fear. If our friend is having marriage problems, we may be afraid of giving the wrong advice. If our friend has been bereaved, we may be afraid of being inadvertently tactless at such a raw and sensitive time. If our friend is depressed, we may be afraid of reaching out to them lest they grab our hand and never let go.

Giving advice isn’t always the best way to help; usually it’s better to listen and to ask questions, allowing the friend to work things out him/herself, in his/her own time. As a side benefit, this protects us from future recriminations, but the main point is that in enormous questions such as is my marriage worth saving?, everybody needs to make their own decisions. A true friend will offer support – and in some cases perhaps an opinion – but not try to control the outcome.

When someone has been recently bereaved, the danger of getting it wrong is real and often significant. In these circumstances, all we can do is tread carefully, watch reactions and apologise if we make a gaffe.

With a friend who is battling depression, the worry is not unfounded either. If we give an inch, we risk them taking a mile. This is probably the trickiest situation of the three to navigate successfully and, as someone whose life was blighted by depression for many years, I can only suggest it depends on the relationship and the state of your own mental and emotional health. If you’re struggling yourself and your friend drains you, it’s probably best to conserve your resources and sort yourself out before trying to help the other person, though if he/she is a close friend, it may be fairer and kinder to talk about it before you withdraw. If you have the strength and the patience, my own experience is that having someone show interest and concern, listen to me and offer affirmation, can bring me back from the edge of the abyss into much more peaceful pastures. Particularly if your friend suffers acute bouts of depression, rather than sustained periods of it, an injection of compassion can lift the bleak mood and possibly banish it for weeks or months.

When we ourselves are in need, we do well to bear in mind all these fears and do our best to allay them. If someone offers help, we must accept it in the spirit it’s intended and not carp or criticise. We must also be aware our friends have limited resources and we must never ask more than they feel able to give at any one time – being consistently needy makes for a one-way relationship and it’s unreasonable to expect our friends to keep this up.

When a friend needs help, we must be brave in offering it. There is nothing more desolate and frightening than having no-one to turn to when life deals a blow. We would hate to be in such a lonely place ourselves and we can’t allow a friend to inhabit it either. We may make the odd mistake in our clumsy attempt to help, but these will be forgiven because we did something, while everybody else was passing by on the other side.

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