Do You Have the Courage to Be a Real Friend?

Our friends don't need to hear their suffering will pass, they need us to acknowledge their experience
By Nancy Colier
Nancy Colier
Nancy Colier
Nancy Colier is a psychotherapist, interfaith minister, public speaker, workshop leader, and author of "Can't Stop Thinking: How to Let Go of Anxiety and Free Yourself from Obsessive Rumination" and “The Power of Off: The Mindful Way to Stay Sane in a Virtual World.” For more information, visit NancyColier.com
October 1, 2021 Updated: October 1, 2021

When in the midst of great sadness or grief, people really want someone to be with them in their pain.

It may be necessary to refrain from turning a friend’s painful experience into an idea or an opportunity to be helpful or wise.

Try to keep a suffering friend company in their truth, however messy it is.

Have you ever told a friend about a deeply upsetting experience and then had the friend tell you all the reasons why that experience won’t be upsetting at some point in the future? Have you ever been that friend who offers that advice?

If we’re no longer a child, we probably already know that our feelings are going to change over time. We’ve had enough life experience to trust this truth. So, when we are reminded that what feels terrible now will eventually feel less terrible, and maybe even normal, we don’t actually feel any better. We don’t feel comforted or supported, not really. But it’s not just because we already know that our feelings will eventually change that this kind of “you won’t always feel this way” reassurance is unhelpful and sometimes actually feels even more painful.

When we’re in the midst of great sadness or grief, what we really want is someone to be with us in our pain, to essentially, keep us company in our grief.

When we’re suffering, counter-intuitively, we don’t actually want advice or someone to remind us that we will feel better in some future now. What we long for is another human being who’s willing to be with us in this now … to let our suffering be what it is. Someone who has the courage to let us suffer and not try or need to change our grief into something better or more tolerable.

We share our pain so that we’re not so alone in it, so that we can have company in our present moment with the pain that’s here. But when someone tells us that we’ll grow accustomed to what feels terrible right now, the result is that we feel even more alone in our pain. In being pointed toward an imaginary future, we feel abandoned in this now, and this moment’s grief. The reassurance of a better tomorrow leaves us without comfort, company, or support today.

So too, when something terrible has happened in our life, the point is, we don’t ever want it to feel normal or OK again. That’s what grief is all about. After a friend lost her son in a car accident, she said the thing that scared her the most was that her life without him would ever seem OK or normal again. The normalizing of this new reality is what she was most afraid of. The idea that this new unbearable truth would become something bearable was the most horrifying part of all of it. That would mean that her son’s life and death were actually over, and a new reality had begun.

My friend needed to know that this moment’s grief was infinite in its magnitude. To know that it was forever and would never feel OK was paradoxically comforting. In contrast, when we are reassured that a time will come when we won’t mind this new dreadful reality so much, it feels as if we are being asked to minimize our current pain and thus betray our aching hearts.

Finally, when we receive “this too will feel OK” comfort, it can feel like the other person has offered assurance that allows them to feel better about our suffering, but at our expense. They can now sleep at night because they know we won’t have to feel so bad forever. But in making it all OK for themselves, we who are suffering are left feeling even lonelier in our grief. The other person has rejected our invitation to be with us in the messy, hard, unknown of our real truth. Our suffering has been wrapped up with a bow and presented back to us, kept at a distance from their heart, safely understood and intellectualized, but without ever having been held or shared. We get back an idea and a theory on our pain, in place of the real company and understanding we need.

The next time someone close to you, or not even close to you, trusts you enough to share something painful and present, see what it feels like—for you—to refrain from giving them advice or making their suffering OK. Refrain from turning their experience into an idea or an opportunity to be helpful or wise. Rather, just as an exercise, let your job be to try to understand their experience and just allow it to be what it is. Set your intention to try to keep them company in their truth, however bumpy it is. Notice what happens inside when you let another person reside in their real experience, without demanding that it or they change.

In those rare moments when someone has the courage or desperation to be truly vulnerable with you, to show you their living pain, trust that advice and guidance aren’t what they long for or want. Know that most of the time, that person wants company, and someone to be with them where they are and with what they’re feeling. You can be that person, that friend—real company—for another human being. And, what a gift it is to be able to offer your presence in this way. When those remarkable opportunities to be a real friend appear, which isn’t often, recognize them and rise to the challenge!

Nancy Colier
Nancy Colier is a psychotherapist, interfaith minister, public speaker, workshop leader, and author of "Can't Stop Thinking: How to Let Go of Anxiety and Free Yourself from Obsessive Rumination" and “The Power of Off: The Mindful Way to Stay Sane in a Virtual World.” For more information, visit NancyColier.com