9 Ways to Be Supportive When You Don’t Understand

There are many experiences common to every human. Most of us will go through these, so we can easily relate and empathize. Nearly everyone is affected by the common cold. Therefore, when someone says they have a cold it is easier be understanding and supportive.  Memories of soup, towers of tissues, and feeling miserable immediately come to mind. We know how to support and help each other through a cold because we can remember what we needed. But what happens when you have no idea what a loved one is going through? How do you support them?

1. Realize you don’t have to understand to lend support. As humans we all go through hard times. Two friends I used to babysit, Julia and Evan, were young friends who both supported each other through an incredibly trying year. Julia and Evan show that humans, including children, don’t have to go through the same experiences to support each other. For Julia, the worst experience of her young life has been the loss of her mother. For Evan, the death of his beloved dog has been the most difficult time of his life thus far. So how did Evan support, empathize, or even begin to understand Julia? It is obvious that they couldn’t entirely relate to each other’s experience. However, this doesn’t mean that they can’t support each other. Both children went through an experience that was incredibly difficult for them. While Julia’s mother’s death had a more profound effect on her life, both children felt sincere grief. Sorrow and struggle are real and in the moment. The cause of grief didn’t change the despair either child felt. Because both children went through those hard experiences and felt grief, they can better relate to each other. Even though the causes and degrees of these feelings were different, both Julia and Evan supported each other through their grief.

As humans we all go through hard times. Two friends I used to babysit, Julia and Evan, were young friends who both supported each other through an incredibly trying year. Julia and Evan show that humans, including children, don’t have to go through the same experiences to support each other. For Julia, the worst experience of her young life has been the loss of her mother. For Evan, the death of his beloved dog has been the most difficult time of his life thus far. So how did Evan support, empathize, or even begin to understand Julia? It is obvious that they couldn’t entirely relate to each other’s experience. However, this doesn’t mean that they can’t support each other. Both children went through an experience that was incredibly difficult for them. While Julia’s mother’s death had a more profound effect on her life, both children felt sincere grief. Sorrow and struggle are real and in the moment. The cause of grief didn’t change the despair either child felt. Because both children went through those hard experiences and felt grief, they can better relate to each other. Even though the causes and degrees of these feelings were different, both Julia and Evan supported each other through their grief.

MRW when my friend's GF starts saying bad things about me and my friend says You never talk to him like that or we're done - Imgur

2. Don’t compare experiences, but do relate to feelings. Whatever your loved one is going through, you have at least some experience you can look at and relate it to. We have all felt frustration, despair, hatred, and pain. For example, if you want to relate to someone who is chronically ill look at what you felt when you were sick. You likely felt pain and frustration, just to a different degree. Therefore, you have the tools you need to empathize with them. Just think, how would those feelings change when sick much longer? What else would you feel? What would you need in terms of support?

Today I got my first full paycheck. After more than a year of just barely getting by due to illness. - Imgur

While searching for common feelings remember to never compare experiences. You would never say to someone who just lost their mom “I understand what you’re going through because I lost my family dog last year.” Instead, you want to consider what feelings that loss stirred in you and what support you may have wanted from others. Then you can adjust your actions accordingly and support them successfully.

While searching for common feelings remember to never compare experiences. You would never say to someone who just lost their mom “I understand what you’re going through because I lost my family dog last year.” Instead, you want to consider what feelings that loss stirred in you and what support you may have wanted from others. Then you can adjust your actions accordingly and support them successfully.

3. Seek to understand and learn. When your related feelings and experiences just aren’t enough to understand what someone is going through, seek understanding elsewhere. Even if your loved one may not want to walk in detail about what they are going through, the internet is a great resource to find people who will give you insight. You can just look up ”

When your related feelings and experiences just aren’t enough to understand what someone is going through, seek understanding elsewhere. Even if your loved one may not want to walk in detail about what they are going through, the internet is a great resource to find people who will give you insight. You can just look up “what it is like to lose a parent” or what it is like to live with a chronic illness“. Reading these will help you to understand what your loved one is going through. If you still have questions, approaching your loved one and saying “I don’t understand what you are going through but I want to support you” can be enough! This gives your loved one an opportunity to explain what they are going through or, if they do not wish to talk, they will at least know you really care and feel your support.

4. Never judge. The fastest way to make someone feel unsupported is to judge them. Never judge how someone deals with something you have never dealt with. Even if you have dealt with it, avoiding being judgmental is a great practice. For example, you should not say “it has been six months, shouldn’t you be getting back to normal?” Instead offer support and say, “I know these past six months have been hard on you; is there anything you would like to talk about?” Try to understand and support first, judge later (or never).

5. Offer more than your prayers. Prayer is the most common support offered to loved ones going through a hard time. Letting someone know you are thinking about them is great, but what are you really doing for them? Even if you believe in the power of prayer, you telling them you are praying does little for them as far as feeling supported. Letting them know that you are there to listen, cooking them a meal, or cleaning their place is much better. If you want to let someone know you are there for them, do something! Actions speak louder than words. These helping actions will lead to your loved one feeling much more supported than they would with a prayer.

The power of prayer! - Imgur

6. Reach out. Don’t assume they will ask for support. Asking for help is not my strong suit. Asking for help isn’t easy for a lot of people. When people are going through a hard time it may be even more difficult. Vague offers for help with “anything you need” begin to feel empty and contrived. So if you really want to help and support someone ask, specifically, what you can do. Reach out to them whenever you think of them or wonder if they need anything. Even if they don’t need help, they will feel much more supported.

7. Suggest specific ways in which you may help. Suggesting specific ways in which you may help will make your loved one feel even more supported. Even if you aren’t aware of exactly what they need, offering concrete ways in which you want to help shows your support. Suggesting tasks also gives your loved one an idea of what you are willing to do and gives them an idea of what they can ask for comfortably. When I need help I ask people who have offered some specific help in the past. I assume people who say “if you ever need anything just call,” are simply being polite.

8. Listen and empathize; hold the advice. If you have no idea about what going through a situation entails, please don’t give advice on it. I can’t tell you how many people have given me unwarranted medical advice because I have a chronic illness. It isn’t being supportive. When you give advice on something you know nothing about you minimize what your loved one is going through. I have spent the past six years bouncing around the medical system, confusing doctors. My complicated medical problems are not going to be resolved by an ignorant jerk with no medical background who is convinced I just need to cut out gluten.

MRW my ex shows empathy. - Imgur

This of course only applies when you aren’t asked for advice. If you have been asked, give your advice with as little judgment as possible.

9. Don’t pull away just because you don’t understand. Just because it is hard to be there and support someone through a hard time doesn’t mean you should give up. Even without similar experiences you can enrich their lives through supporting them through this hard time. Seek understanding even if it isn’t the easiest thing. They need your support especially now. Even if someone doesn’t ask explicitly for your help and support, they may really need it.

When it comes to depression and chronic illness - Imgur

It is possible to support someone through something you don’t understand. Ask questions and try to understand what they are going through the best way you can. Offer specific suggestions for how to help them, and don’t offer unwarranted advice. Just listen and love. Good luck!

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