Supporting others

Help people cope: Be There for the Long Haul

5 minutes

Grief and hardship can long outlast the initial waves of support. Show your loved ones that you're there to provide long-term support.

Grieving a loss or coping with life’s most challenging moments lasts long past the initial flurry of cards. Even once people have regained their footing and created a “new normal,” some days will still be hard.

Often, people going through difficult times don’t reach out for help after the initial wave of support has passed. They may think people are tired of hearing about their problems or worry they’ll be judged for taking “too long” to move on. Or they may feel obligated to hide ways their hardship has become a part of them, changing their plans, values, and everyday life.

You can help by showing your loved one you’re there for long-term support. This isn’t about exhausting yourself by trying to meet every need, just about recognizing that hard times come with a long tail and continue to turn up.

Being there also means cherishing your loved one as they are now, as a person who has struggled, been shaped by hardship, and remade themselves in unexpected ways.

  • Tip #1
    Be consistent

    In a classic experiment on stress, people were asked to focus on complex tasks while being blasted with loud sounds at random intervals. Some participants were left to simply deal with the noise. Others were told they could stop the noise by pushing a button if they needed to. People in that group didn’t end up using the button, but having the option allowed them to stay calmer and perform better.

    Dealing with hardship can be like participating in a high-intensity, years-long version of that experiment. It’s hard to anticipate when a tough moment will come up. Sometimes it’s a special occasion, sometimes it’s a random Thursday.

    You can’t stop your loved one from having hard moments, but you can serve as their “I need a break” button. Knowing they can turn to you if they get overwhelmed gives them a sense of control, making it easier to ride out a wave of emotion.

  • How to do it

    Check in frequently, in whatever way works for you. Send a card, leave a voicemail, or text more often than usual. To keep your check-ins from creating a sense of obligation on their end, let them know they don’t need to respond—you just wanted to let them know you’re thinking of them.

    Because weeks slip by quickly as life gets busy, you may want to create reminders for yourself, like:

    • Marking key dates in your calendar and committing to reaching out on those days
    • Scheduling standing calls or get-togethers
    • Setting a reminder for yourself after each check-in so you don’t lose steam or leave the timing of the next check-in to chance

  • Tip #2
    Remember hard days, holidays, and milestones

    You can help by showing up for your loved ones on days that are especially likely to be hard. Holidays, birthdays, weddings, and graduations can bring up powerful feelings. Because those days are so oriented around family and tradition, they tend to remind us of people who are no longer there or of how our life has changed.

    People can also struggle on days that have special meaning for them. A person who has moved into assisted living might struggle on Super Bowl Sunday because they can no longer host a big party. Someone who lost a child might feel especially sad on the first day of school each year. The anniversary of a diagnosis may bring back memories of the exhaustion and financial stress associated with treatment.

    Often, no one checks in on holidays and special occasions because they’re worried about ruining their loved one’s day. The truth is, the loss they’ve experienced is already on their minds and they’re likely to appreciate an opening to talk about it. In an OptionB.Org survey, people were asked to identify the most meaningful kinds of support they could get during the holiday season. Having people call or text to check in or send a “thinking of you” message were the top options.

  • How to do it

    On days that might be hard for a loved one, open the door to meaningful conversation by saying something like:

    • “I woke up today thinking about how much your dad loved the holidays. How are you doing today without him here?”
    • “Going to your daughter’s wedding so soon after your own separation seems hard. How are you feeling about it?”
    Even if your loved one chooses not to talk, just giving them the opportunity has real value—it lets them know that it’s okay to still have powerful feelings and that you’ll be there when they need you.

    If the setting isn’t right for a deeper conversation, you can support your loved one by changing up standard greetings that imply they should be happy and filled with joy. “I’m glad to be here with you today” may feel better than “Happy holidays!”

    And, of course, being there for someone doesn’t have to involve words. It might mean giving them an extra-long hug, sitting with an arm around their shoulder, or rescuing them from a pushy relative. If you’re part of a holiday celebration or milestone event that might be hard for someone, explore what would make the day better for them.

    • Do they want to keep things just the same as always?
    • Add in time for remembrance?
    • Skip celebrations to veg out on the couch?
    • Ignore the occasion entirely and treat it like an ordinary weekday?
    Encourage your loved one to choose whatever option feels right for them and to change course if they discover they want something different than they’d expected.

Being there for long-term support and the long haul can be as simple as texting someone once a week to say, “I’m wondering how you’re feeling today. I’m here if you want to talk.” Giving loved ones the space to continue talking about their experiences can have a powerful effect on their healing.

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