What can you say? What should you do? You care about your friend, but you know trying to be there for your friend is fraught with no-win situations and conflicts. You can see much more clearly than they can what should or shouldn’t be done, but everything you say seems to fall on deaf ears as your friend just continues to become more distant and depressed. An epic breakup isn't easy for anyone involved—and that includes you, looking in from the outside, trying to cushion the fall. Here are four suggestions to help guide you toward being there for your friend in a way that is as effective as possible for them, while allowing you to maintain your boundaries, manage your frustration, and maintain your patience.
1. Respect Your Friend's Process
If your friend has been decimated by a breakup, distraction can seem like a way to ease the pain temporarily—you might want to drag them out clubbing or get them to be part of the group going to the baseball game. Part of the reason is that you miss the way your friend used to be before the breakup. But no matter how much you want your friend to get over it and be that fun person you know and love, nothing you can do will speed up the grieving process. In fact, in trying to rush the process, you might succeed in momentarily distracting your friend from their grief. But grief that is avoided or repressed doesn’t just disappear. Rather, it continues showing up in nearly unbearable ways at extremely inopportune times. Be ready for your friend to attempt to avoid that pain through impulsive behavior and possibly even a reckless follow-up relationship that's as much a mess as the previous one. All you can do is remind them and yourself that they may not have taken adequate time to grieve and that it is normal to do everything possible to avoid pain, even when their methods are clearly reckless. Everything your friend is feeling and doing after their loss is a part of their unique, individual experience of trying to reinvent themselves in the face of their loss and find a way to continue to exist until they feel ready to live again. Whether it takes six days or six months or far longer, this is your friend's process. Decrease your expectations for a quick change, and you will decrease your frustration.
2. Understand Your Limits
Your friend is grieving and therefore not likely to be able to see past him- or herself at this stage. It might not be possible right now for them to be as good a friend to you as you are used to. This is not indicative of how the rest of your lives will be. For now, expect your well-meaning comments to be twisted and interpreted by your friend in distorted in unrecognizable ways. Be ready for them to be flaky, distant, insensitive, even dismissive. It's easy to be friends when you both feel good about life, yourselves, and each other—it's harder with someone who seems to need you desperately one minute and hate you the next. You are experiencing your friend's fear, despair, disappointment and shame turned outward. Provided that you are not actually being abused, it is your challenge to accept that while this anger seems to be directed at you, it actually isn’t. Rather, you can interpret it, process it, and return it to your friend as kindness and compassion. Most importantly, remember that whether you realize this or not, just listening, being there, and helping your friend feel understood is all you can “do.” There is no other action you can take. Reminding yourself that you are weathering this storm together and that it has to pass you (you can’t pass it) might help you feel more patient during this trying time.
3. As Hard As It Is, Let Your Friend Find Their Own Path
Of course your friend shouldn't call their ex, no matter what reasons they can come up with. Why? Because you are painfully aware that your friend will be set back yet again. However, they have regenerated that blinding hope again that this time, there’s a chance to mend the relationship. Since you can predict with a fair amount of certainty just how badly this scenario will unfold, it’s tempting to offer advice. But offering advice in this situation does two things: First, it puts you in a position of having an investment in the outcome—you have dispensed valuable advice and when it’s not followed or painfully botched, it likely only serves to heighten your frustration. Second, you may (without realizing it) compel your friend to do the opposite of what you prescribed. Why? Because they were looking for any reason to go rogue anyway, and you just made it easier somehow (nobody said this was rational). Rather, remember that your friend has to find their own way through, in their own time. You can, however, be a sounding board, even if all they do is repeat themselves. It’s part of their process, and it’s because they are still trying to make sense of what happened. Even though it’s clear to you, the situation remains a great fog of disbelief to them.
4. Take Care of the Details
Grief is all-absorbing. This is true of traumatic loss through death, and it can be true of a breakup. One difference, of course, is that when someone we love dies, there are often friends and neighbors to take care of the little things like food or other basic necessities. Consider offering the same help to a friend grieving the loss of a relationship. Remember there are a lot of basics your friend may currently be overlooking in trying to figure out their new normal. For example you may want to do a grocery run, or make sure they remember to get their car inspected this month. Remember that your efforts may not be recognized now—and that’s okay—as the world has become a foreign and surreal place to them for now.
Your friend's process of grieving a breakup creates tremendous emotional upheaval for them, and compels change on all levels, sometimes for better and sometimes not. It can seem as if your friend is tearing down his or her life instead of building a new one. It is your excruciatingly painful challenge to accompany your friend during this process. Remember, their grieving process is not on your timeline. Guiding, cajoling, and pushing will by no means speed up the process. Instead, work on understanding that there is nothing for you to change or fix. Rather, just being present and tolerating their despair opens up a safer, less judgmental space. Your friendship will be better for it, and your capacity to be a good friend will have deepened profoundly.