Dear Swastika, Recently, one of my female colleagues lost her husband. It has been a week that she’s been back to work but I feel that she’s not coping well with her tragedy. I share a really intimate friendship with her. When I was just starting this job, she was the only person who helped me settle in. She is 10 years older than me and very mature. She used to tell me all about herself and her family. But with this new development I find her distant and can see that she’s going through a lot of stress. I am not expecting her to quickly change into her old self. However, seeing her in this state is killing me. How can I help to reduce her stress and get her through this personal crisis?
When you share a deep meaningful connection with someone, the empathy for the other person makes us feel as if we are going through the same pain and suffering. We not only know how vulnerable, scared, and alone the other person feels, but we go through the same experience ourselves. You are also suffering from your friend’s tragedy because you must be naturally very empathetic in addition to sharing a very special friendship with this person.
I do want to start by asking you to take care of your own emotional state first. While empathy allows us to feel what the other person is feeling, sometimes, the same feelings begin to overwhelm us. Empathy, instead of leading into action, might overpower you to the point where you freeze or begin to get disillusioned. Eventually you suffer rather than your friend. You can take care of your friend when you empathize without engrossing in her suffering.
Please understand that a traumatic experience like this takes time to heal. She might take two years for her to get some control over her emotions and begin to make sense of her condition and gradually start making life adjustments. Till then, she will go through a range of emotions – bewilderment, fear, loneliness, self-doubt.
You can be helpful by starting conversations, taking her to events, and walks, offering her help with small things that relieve her day. Give her books that would be good to read. Remind her that she is strong and that she’s going to get out of it. Small things can heal. There is nothing big or radical that needs to be done here. She has to fight her own fight. We can do small things and those small things are the big things.
But remember to be gentle and yet persistent. She will refuse, she will reject, she will push you away. There will be times that she might make you feel that you are a nuisance and she’d want you to leave her alone. Those are the times where you need to take a step back but move back into her life with the commitment that you’re always there when she needs you. She might not always invite you and might not always be grateful for little things you do. Occasionally, she might hurt you by turning you down. But always remember, it is about her and not you. Once you step forward to support her, be ready to support her through the worst of her times and be ready to deal with your own emotions as you go through all this. Don’t give up on her, do not give up on yourself. I send you both love and strength.
Swastika Shrestha is the co-founder and head of training and support at Teach for Nepal. She has several years of experience training and mentoring youth leaders. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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