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10 ways to help a friend when they are sad or struggling

May 24, 2016

Everyone has crappy stuff they have to go through. It’s just the lottery of life. The luggage of life, even.

Here’s some concrete ideas on how you can help a sad pal, in case you are feeling a bit hand-wring-y and unsure of the best approach…



1. Listen and don’t advise

Oh this is so hard, right? But really, it’s the best way. Struggling pal may be sad, but she’s a grown up and needs to come to her own decisions about her life, when the time is right to ensure they are right for her. Or him. The very best approach is to listen carefully and let your pal know that you care how she’s feeling and that you are there for her, no matter what. The rest is up to her.

You can most definitely help her enlist the assistance of a professional person to guide her through, but I (as a quite grown-up person myself) would strongly advise against taking on the role of doctor or counsellor or therapist yourself. Not only are you (possibly) not a doctor or counsellor or therapist – your friendship should be based on other through-thick-and-thin type situations that aren’t so trickily challenging. Some things are best supported by the professionals – but you can co-support, right? Yep.

2. Send snacks

Snacks make the world go ’round, as far as I’m concerned. I think that sad people need A LOT of snacks. Yes, I understand the long-term perils of ‘feeding your feelings’, but for Pete’s sake, the joyless types that would deny a sad pal a delicious jaffle, wodge of cheese on toast or slice of cake are the type of people I AVOID. Think about making something for your friend – a lovely cake? Some home-made bread and jam? Soup? Or if you’re pushed for time, you could buy something feel-good? Cheese and crackers? Dumplings? Donuts? Hm?

3. Be available

Sad friends are often a bit worried about asking for company or help. It’s super important to show them how much they mean to you and confirm that you’re around and you will do your best to lend a hand or an ear. Let them know often, because they might feel like they’re in this alone or are being pesky. They aren’t, are they? They have you (and maybe a few other good eggs too!) and they are non-pesky and just being human.

4. Hugs and teary looks

It can be hard to deal with someone else’s sadness. The best thing to do, as a hanging-in-the-buddy, is to face it head on. You don’t have to dive into it, because that can be totally counter-productive for everyone. Instead look the sadness – and your friend – in the eye and give them both a big hug. As often as they need it. Possibly more often than that. If they start laughing and slapping your hand away, you’ve probably hit their limit, FYI. Know that when things are really tough, you might need a support person while you support the sad person. That’s a good think to note, right? Be sure to find your own shoulder to lean on, if so.

5. Love letters

When someone is feeling down, they’re probably pretty deep in whatever is making them feel that way. It might be hard for them to remember their place in the world and will definitely be hard for them to think of much more than the trouble they’re in. Write them a letter, or a song, or a text and let them know why they’re your friend… why you buddied up in the first place… and the things that you admire about them. Don’t be falsely gushy – but do be candid and tell your sad friend why they’re an important part of your life.

6. Wine or whisky

I know that alcohol is a depressant, but sometimes the very best medicine is doing something indulgent and hooligan-ish. Your sad friend might appreciate a bit of arm-in-arm shenanigans and the opportunity to let the things they need to vent tumble and pour forth in boozy abandon. Just this once. Or twice. Or thereabouts. (I only wrote whisky because of my Outlander obsession. Feel free to interpret in your own clinky way! Gin? Pimms? Tequila? Uh-oh.)

7. Nature time

Getting out in the fresh air, facing the weather and wildlife and gaining some perspective on your place in the world is a vital part of carving a path to on-the-mend. Here’s how my great-grandfather put it:

Immensity is magnificent medicine. That is one reason—if we may let the cat out of the bag—why the doctors send us to the seaside. We forget the tiddley-winking in the contemplation of the tremendous. We lose life’s shallow worries in the vision of unplumbed depths.

Those who have read Mrs. Barclays Rosary will remember that, in the crisis of her life, the heroine, the Hon. Jane Champion, determined to consult her physician, Sir Deryck Brand. And, after having realized the fearful strain to which his poor patient’s nerves had been subjected, he exclaimed: ‘Here is a prescription for you! See a few big things!’ He urged her to go out west, and see the stupendous Falls of Niagara, to go out east and see the Great Pyramid. ‘Go for the big things,’ he said; ‘you will like to remember, when you are bothering about pouring water in and out of tea-cups, “Niagara is flowing still!”‘

…The tendency of life is to drift among small things—small anxieties, small pleasures, small ideas, and small talk. He is a very wise physician indeed who can prescribe for us a tonic of big things.

Put on your sneakers and jacket and take your friend for a ramble amidst the big things. If you’re wondering if it’s a good idea to wear a jacket and sneakers with couch-weary pyjamas, I think it’s totally cool.

8. Practical help

Sometimes the sadness needs kind ears AND helping hands. Don’t just be the ears. Be the hands too.

Think about the practical things you can do to help your pal feel supported and a) suggest or b) delegate or c) bossily but gently do those. Maybe it’s some help with pets or kids or shopping? It might be other things like paying a bill or sorting out paperwork? It could be something else. Sometimes the help will mean making some adjustments to your own life for a short while, but it’s totally worth it, I promise.

9. Checking in

It’s one thing to let your pal know you are available, but it’s another to keep the faith and check in on them as often as makes sense. Life can be lonely when you are navigating tricky times and the theme from The Breakfast Club can ring in the sad pal’s ears. A little wave from someone you care about – whether it’s by text or leaving a bunch of flowers on the doorstep – can make a big difference when you’re feeling a bit rudderless.

10. Judge-less-ness

It’s so easy to THINK you know how you would deal with things, if you were in a sad and similar situation… but truth be told life rolls out so very differently for each of us. Folks. Strokes. Your way is not the highway. Your friend has to find their own way through and letting them do that (with some ever-loving, rock-solid support from you) is a sensible approach.

I hope these are helpful ideas and I hope you don’t need to use them. If you have a sad friend or are a sad friend, I am sending squeezes to you.

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  • Reply Caitlin March 20, 2017 at 1:06 PM

    Thanks Pip. I have some friends going through super hard times right now, and it’s great to have suggestions. It’s also hard when your friends are the kind of people who are usually the supporter, not the one being supported. Tricky!

  • Reply Lise August 28, 2016 at 5:08 AM

    Hi Pip, I remembered this post today, as my mom got some bad/sad medical news. Unfortunately, I am in another country (on another continent), so I can’t do any of the things you suggested. Any ideas for helping someone from a distance? xx

  • Reply Sheryl July 28, 2016 at 6:31 PM

    Wonderful advice! Thank you so much.

  • Reply Paula May 28, 2016 at 11:25 PM

    This is great advice. I always struggle with number one, because I want to solve things, but you’re right people need to work things about on their own. 🙂

  • Reply Sandra Kelly May 28, 2016 at 3:38 PM

    Your great grandfather was a very very very wise soul… and so are you dear Pip. Xx

  • Reply Tanya May 26, 2016 at 6:22 AM

    These are all great ideas. I feel like I am always to awkward because I don’t know how to help.

  • Reply Tahnee May 25, 2016 at 10:21 PM

    Pip you are just SO LOVELY! This is such a beautiful list and perfect timing to help support a close friend through a really shitty patch at the moment. Everything you share is so full of heart – thankyou for being so sunshiney! x

  • Reply Ami May 25, 2016 at 11:40 AM

    Such a wise list! I agree with everything ….especially the part about sometimes finding some support yourself if you are supporting a sad friend. So true! Your friends are truly lucky to have you!

  • Reply Nic May 25, 2016 at 11:13 AM

    Thank you! Thank you……..
    Am going through some really hard s#%t at the moment and these words are like the soft blanket I need wrapped around me….best thing ever finding your blog and seeing the posts in my inbox.
    Nic xx

  • Reply Jen May 25, 2016 at 8:40 AM

    Great tips. I recently when through a tough patch of caring for someone which was all a bit of a strain, and the most wonderful thing that anyone did for me during that period was show up late to a party I was hosting (and not necessarily enjoying the stress of hosting), look around, and start doing dishes having just walked in the door. It was such a relief for someone to just do something that helped me out without asking me to tell them what I needed help with, and without letting me bat an offer of help away. She even roped in another bystander to dry. (Actually, she’s a Pip too – good eggs you Pips!) And Thai takeaway. People who brought Thai takeaway have a special place in my heart.

  • Reply Catherine May 24, 2016 at 10:00 PM

    This is a great collection of hints. How do I know? I’ve had a few years as the sad friend and you’ve listed the things which helped me out. Doing well now, and making chicken soup for my aunt.
    Yes, what goes around comes around …

  • Reply Jo May 24, 2016 at 9:47 PM

    Great post – and so true – especially number 9 – just checking in . When my Dad was really sick and I was caught between Mum/work/hospital/kids I had a couple of friends who would just shoot a text – little things like – had dinner Jo? or Are you home yet? So great to have people just out there caring xox

  • Reply Linda May 24, 2016 at 8:36 PM

    Hi Pip. I am admin of a closed Australian facebook group for crafters who are experiencing/recovering from Anxiety and depression. We offer caring support and craft inspiration. New members always welcome please follow the link to apply to join the group.

  • Reply Rae May 24, 2016 at 7:36 PM

    Pip you are awesome because I read your chosen words as you feel them and apply them to paper . You are gifted and I love what you do for us readers Job well done. X

  • Reply Emma Mitchell May 24, 2016 at 7:01 PM

    I’ve only reached number 3 Pip, but I wanted to write and say that this is already the wisest, loveliest, most useful blogpost I’ve read in MONTHS. Thankyou. Off to read more…

  • Reply Denyse May 24, 2016 at 6:33 PM

    Lovely post Pip with all the right stuff! I continue to get waves of the sads – aging , retirement & more – and I go to the WAVES as once I’m immersed in the BIGness I see things differently. Lucky for me we’ve moved to a place about 15 mins drive from the beach. Thanks for this! D x

  • Reply Bronnie - Maid In Australia May 24, 2016 at 6:26 PM

    Such great advice. Being there is a big one but so is offering, because asking for help and reaching out is so hard when you are struggling. Sometimes just having someone to hang out with is a relief too.

  • Reply Donna Bridges May 24, 2016 at 4:51 PM

    knew there was I reason I shouted at the waves, big things yes exactly.

  • Reply Therese May 24, 2016 at 4:26 PM

    Thanks for these tips Pip. I have just such a situation and no idea what to do. So timely – can you read my mind?

  • Reply Kate May 24, 2016 at 4:13 PM

    I’ll take a squeeze today thanks, I’m the sad friend.
    This is a really helpful list, just having someone to listen and feeling cared for helps so much.

    • Reply Meet Me At Mikes May 24, 2016 at 4:23 PM

      I am sending you an ULTRA-SQUEEZE, which is bracing, but also comforting. xxxx

      • Reply Kate May 24, 2016 at 6:07 PM

        Thank you it means a lot

  • Reply Sue May 24, 2016 at 2:52 PM

    Thank you for being such a lovely and thoughtful person, Pip xoxo

  • Reply Sandra May 24, 2016 at 2:39 PM

    So appropriate for me today. Great post Pip. I will now go off and do that listening, non councelling thing. x

  • Reply Anne May 24, 2016 at 1:38 PM

    Great tips, I know some times people feel like they don’t know what the right thing to do is but sometimes it is just simply being there for someone in need.

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