Knowing how to comfort a friend is a valuable lesson in empathy. But it’s not easy, especially if you have social anxiety. It’s awkward, uncomfortable and painful to see a friend who desperately needs support, but not knowing what in the hell to do!
I’ll get to what you need to do, but first let me tell you about the time I was WAY out of my depth when trying to comfort a distressed, unstable friend:
Trigger warning: This article talks about a threat of suicide. See the link at the bottom of this article for help.
The year was 2012. The house next door had a new tenant move in – her name was Deb.
Deb had quite the back-story: She was married to a cop – she herself was in fact an ex-cop.
She had lived with her cop husband in different towns around Australia, and they had a 3-year-old son together.
My own son was 3 at the time, and the kids hit it off right away.
So it was inevitable that Deb and I would spend a lot of time chatting over the fence while our little ones would run around the yard, playing together.
The complete and utter truth was: Her cop husband was an asshole.
He had been caught having an affair with a domestic violence victim (YES – as part of his work, he was called on to help a woman who was stuck in a situation with a violent partner – and he exploited her.)
So they had left their old town to start afresh.
This whole sad, sorry story came out so emotionally, it was hard not to get swept up in it myself.
The fact that she told me this story VERY early in our friendship – approximately the third time we stopped and chatted – didn’t raise any major red flags for me… Looking back, it should have.
So I became Deb’s shoulder to lean on. And she leant on it – a lot.
Over the course of the next couple of weeks, I found myself in the back yard, leaning over that fence, giving Deb a hug, holding her tiny, fragile body as sobs wracked her.
The sobbing seemed uncontrollable, manic.
And the sobs would disappear the minute her husband would appear in the yard.
I took this as a coping mechanism, and vowed to remain a loyal friend.
By this stage I had known Deb a total of about 2-and-a-half weeks, but it was already the most intense friendship I’d ever had.
Others started to notice red flags, and they mentioned them to me.
One night my husband, Matt, gently asked me if maybe I needed to take a break from chatting to Deb over the fence.
“They only just moved in, it sounds like they have a lot of issues that need to be addressed – maybe give them some space?” he suggested.
I told him about how her asshole husband had made her so desperate, she had previously decided to go and lay down in the middle of a highway in her old town.
Her cop husband’s boss had been the one to negotiate her back.
I told my husband that Deb really needed our love, support and loyalty.
Matt muttered something about barely knowing her.
Our neighbour on the other side mentioned that she had seen Deb’s 3-year-old son playing dangerously close to the road.
When my other neighbour had taken the boy back to his house, Deb had seemed nonchalant, like she didn’t care if her son was hit by a car or not.
That didn’t sound like the Deb I knew.
I dismissed these red flags as something that Matt and my other neighbour didn’t quite understand. They didn’t know the horror of Deb’s story, what she was dealing with in life.
In my mind, these other people lacked compassion.
Matt decided to take us camping for the weekend.
It was a lovely little break, and I enjoyed the peace and solitude while my son played in the river.
Matt mentioned that the wanted to put up a privacy screen on our fence.
“Are you kidding me?” I exclaimed, “Our son has only just met a wonderful little mate and they love being able to see one another through the fence. They love climbing that fence to go see each other.”
Matt relented, and the rest of our camping trip was beautiful.
We drove home the next day.
As we pulled up, Deb was standing in our driveway in an incredibly distressed state.
Her hair was dishevelled, her face was red and blotchy from crying floods of tears.
I got out of the car and went straight to Deb, whilst Matt took our 3-year-old inside and started to unpack the car.
After a few minutes, Deb’s sobs began to form into words.
Her husband had deserted her.
He had packed a suitcase, and taken their son back to their old town.
He’d been having an affair.
Not with the domestic violence victim – but with a probationary constable.
A 23-year-old girl, fresh from the police academy.
He had been her supervisor, and he had started an affair with her.
He couldn’t stand to be away from her, and moved back to their old town to be with her.
And took their son with him.
I suggested that Deb come inside and I would make her a cup of tea.
It was all I could think of doing, at the time. (See: How to be a good friend)
Deb told me that she had some phone calls to make – to the bank, her solicitor – that kind of thing.
So we went into her house.
I admired the way she could be remarkably composed on the phone, giving bank account numbers and personal details fresh off the top of her head.
But in-between the calls, sobs would wrack her fragile little body – she was incapable of forming a sentence.
Until the phone would ring, and she spoke clearly and calmly again.
I brought her cups of tea.
She didn’t drink them.
What else could I do?
I stayed there with her for about 4 hours while she see-sawed from desolate despair to equanimously calm.
I was aware that it was getting close to dinner time.
I asked if she would be ok for half an hour while I went to see how Matt and my son were doing.
I invited her to come to dinner.
She said yes.
I threw together a quick meal and Deb came over.
She’d brought a bottle of red wine.
It was a special bottle of wine, with a special label made up from her wedding to her cop husband from 5 years ago.
It was the last one she had, and she had been saving it for a special occasion.
“But now seems as good a time as any to drink it, right?” she asked, “The day my husband leaves me for a woman 10 years younger than me?”
I suggested that she might not want to drink the wine.
She was feeling emotional, but her emotions like all other things would feel better in time.
Why not just put it away and give it to her son one day?
She decisively found our cork-screw, and opened the bottle.
As Deb poured the wine into 3 glasses for herself, myself and Matt, I glimpsed something over her shoulder, out the window that overlooked our fence line.
There were three police officers walking down our driveway.
My husband was in the yard with our son, and I could see one of the police officers approach him.
Out of instinct, I said nothing to Deb.
I’m not sure why – I still don’t know why I said nothing.
After the police spoke with my husband, they left.
Matt came up into the house.
“Let’s eat on the deck tonight,” he suggested.
I remember feeling confused as the mosquitos were bad, and said that our mosquito coils and citronella candles needed half an hour to take effect – would sitting inside be better?
Matt’s eye contact said it all – we needed to eat outside.
So, gathering all our bits and pieces, we sat around our outdoor table.
I still can’t describe the way I felt – a little bit like I was in a dream.
On the surface, we were calm – Deb was eating her meal and leading the conversation – but I had this awareness that something was happening in the background.
Instinct again told me not to mention anything about the Police.
As we were finishing up, Matt took our plates inside to the kitchen.
“You ladies stay out here and enjoy your wine,” he said.
As Matt was walking inside, the Police and two Ambulance Officers came around the side of our house and stood at the bottom of our back deck stairs.
Deb’s demeanour changed immediately.
“I didn’t mean it!” she yelled. “How did you know I was here?!”
“Deb Havarti?” they confirmed.
Deb sighed deeply.
“Yes, it’s me.” She said.
“We are following up on a concern for welfare report,” the Police said.
The Ambulance Officers walked up the back stairs and I was requested to speak to the female officer in the front yard.
That’s 4 cops and 2 Ambos, for those playing at home.
I checked with Deb that she was going to be ok to speak to the officers on my deck while I went to the front.
“They can’t make me go,” was all she said.
I assured her that nobody could force her to go anywhere.
Bewildered, I walked around the side of my house to my front yard, and met with the female cop.
“What’s happening?” I asked.
The police officer filled in some important gaps for me.
Deb had planned to go home and kill herself that night.
Whilst I was making her cups of tea that afternoon, she Facebook messaged her friends from her old town to say goodbye.
Her friends contacted the Police.
All this was very bewildering for me – her neighbour, who had become very close to her in an extremely short space of time.
Why had she not told me?
I felt a mix of things:
Sympathy for the shitty situation she was in.
Confusion about her erratic behaviour.
Helplessness that all I could do was make her cups of tea and invite her over for a meal.
Anger that she had me partake in her ‘final bottle of wine’ unknowingly.
Although… I was bewildered more than anything. The anger didn’t surface until later, when other pieces of the puzzle began to fit into place.
Deb came around the side of the house, flanked by the other officers.
“Do you think I should go?” she asked me.
Still confused, I asked where they were taking her.
“We will be taking her to the Mater Hospital for a mental health assessment,” they informed me.
I gently suggested to her that it might be a good idea.
She got into the ambulance and it drove away slowly, quietly, eerily.
Deb’s parents flew in two days later and packed up the house.
They assured me that she was ok, that she was going to be released into their care – on a plan to safeguard her welfare.
They confirmed to me that she had the means to take her own life that night – and she had meticulously set up exactly what she needed in the kitchen.
And yet – I had been in her house that afternoon, IN HER KITCHEN – and I had missed everything.
No idea of what she planned.
And that’s the point I want to make by telling you this story:
There is no perfect way to know how to comfort a friend.
You can only do what you can do, with the information and resources available to you at the time.
I had witnessed Deb’s see-sawing, erratic behaviour.
My response was to make her cups of tea, and keep her company.
It was nowhere near enough, because I didn’t have all the information.
This is not to try to demonise her – but to illustrate the red flags which in hindsight were glaringly obvious – but hidden in plain sight.
I tell you this story so that you can see one of the more intense scenarios of a friend in need, and see that even I, who help people with their mental health battles regularly, couldn’t see the red flags that were right in front of me.
The take-home lessons I learned were:
- Understand that there’s NEVER a “right thing to say”. Just acknowledging that she is going through some shit is enough.
- Sometimes she will need you to say nothing. Just be there.
- Understand you can’t SOLVE her problems for her. This is HER life and only she can make the decisions in it.
- You won’t have all the answers. Don’t beat yourself up over this.
- You might miss some important red flags. No matter how experienced you are.
- Trust that the Universe will unfold exactly as it needs to (this is hard to accept at the time, but it’s the most valuable lesson I learned in hindsight).
- If you suspect your friend might be considering taking her own life, ask her outright. Say “Are you thinking about suicide?” Sometimes a person just needs someone to break the ice and ask the question, then they feel more comfortable asking for help.
- If you truly are concerned for your friend’s welfare in a crisis moment, get help to her. She might see it as a betrayal at the time, but it’s the right thing to do.
If you or a friend need urgent support, go to https://www.lifeline.org.au/About-Lifeline/Lifeline-International/Looking-for-Help/Looking-for-Help