I’ve been friends with a woman my age, mid-40s, for two years, when our young sons, age 10, connected through their school. She’s a very interesting person with a successful business and also has a daughter, 16, and a son in his early 20’s in university.
I’ve enjoyed getting to know her, but have slowly become aware of many serious stresses on her from her ex-husband, her son, and her recent diagnosis of a health problem.
I almost feel like it’s too much drama for me to know how to be a good friend, though she certainly needs people she can trust.
I know that she sees a few other women friends besides me, but some stick to superficial chat and avoid the serious topics that I’m sure are constantly on her mind.
I’m an empathetic person and have had some counselling myself for different, less dramatic issues, so feel I can be an understanding listener.
I don’t want to just hear about the bizarre behaviour of her ex as gossip (he’s pulled a few stunts that the whole school community of teachers and parents know about).
My interest is to be supportive to her when she’s feeling down. I know she thinks that she has no choice but to put up with this man, or risk harming the relationship between him and his young son. He’s her second husband.
Also, her older son who’s away at school has been overwhelmed with depression, a trait that existed in my friend’s own mother. Now she fears that her son who’s very intelligent, will drop his courses rather than struggle with mental health issues that may cause him to fail.
How can I best help her?
Worried Caring Friend
Your sincere desire to be helpful is admirable, but unless she opens a conversation seeking ideas or help, it may feel more like pressure on her to discuss the personal matters affecting her.
Even if you were a professional therapist, it’s up to her to either ask directly to receive counselling or to be referred to someone for her issues.
The best you can do is listen when she initiates telling you personal stuff, be open about your empathy, and ask whether she’s getting advice she trusts from reliable sources.
Small but important support can be given by offering to drive her to her doctor’s office and/or pick up some groceries for her while she’s there, or have her young son visit for a playdate with your child.
Her issues with her ex and his behaviour to get her attention, are worrisome. You could recommend that she talk to a lawyer about him (who might then suggest informing the police so that she feels less vulnerable to the man’s outbursts).
Her older son, meanwhile, needs attention from a specialist in depression-related disorders, likely possible in the area where he attends university. Or back home for a while - perhaps with support from his father - and having regular counselling and treatment.
There’s more genuine life drama here, as you say, than can be soothed or resolved through friendship, no matter how sincere and concerned you feel.
Given that she has other friends, too, check in with her by email once weekly. If you sense a problem, call. Try to share a conversation if she’s in the mood but don’t keep asking questions.
Sometimes invite her over for a casual chat and snack during a relaxed visit.
FEEDBACK Regarding a father’s concerns about his son’s negative state of mind and a reader’s response (June 24): “Something I learned in therapy after there was a suicide in my family, was to get your kids to promise they won’t attempt suicide without talking to someone about it first.”
“It doesn't work. My cousin and I both battle mental illness. When I last saw him, I made him promise he wouldn’t commit suicide. One week later, I was at his funeral. Some promises are just made to make others feel better. I've been there often.
“Unless you walk a mile in someone else's shoes you don't/cannot imagine what they're going through. Since age 12, I'd tried to kill myself half a dozen times.”
Ellie - Any youth or younger person with suicidal thoughts should call Kids Help Phone which aims to help young people find the strength to persevere. Phone 1-800-668-6868, or contact online at www.kidshelphone.ca 24/7.
Tip of the day:
Being a supportive friend means giving of yourself when it’s needed and staying thoughtfully out of the way when it’s not.