What would you say to Elin Nordegren (Mrs. Tiger Woods) if you were her BFF? Bad news can take many forms but the rules of friendship--how to help a close friend who is dealing with bad stuff--are fairly universal.
What would you say to any friend who was experiencing an overwhelming personal problem? It might be the friend who didn't get into her dream school, the friend whose boyfriend broke off with her, the friend whose husband lost his job, the friend whose son's recent drug charges made their way into the local paper, the friend who had another miscarriage, the friend whose home has been foreclosed by the bank, the friend who was diagnosed with an aggressive type of cancer, the friend whose daughter has an obvious eating disorder, the friend whose young child was just diagnosed with bipolar disorder, the friend who suddenly lost her husband, or the office friend who was passed over for a promotion.
Although bad stuff happens all the time--at every age and stage of life--it's probably the first time your friend has been faced with this problem. As a result, she may feel confused, alone, victimized, and/or ashamed--and have trouble coping.
Here are some suggestions about what you might do as a friend:
1) Acknowledge that you know what happened
The story doesn't have to make the front page of US Weekly or the NY Post, but when people in your office, neighborhood, or circle of friends know that something bad went down, don't pretend that you don't--especially if you are a close friend.
Some people think it's impolite to acknowledge that they heard bad news or think that it isn't their place to say anything. They also may not know what to say. This leaves the friend in trouble feeling alone and isolated, even from her closest friends, and unsure why people are reacting that way. Do they know or not? Does their mean they blame her for what happened? Are her friends purposely distancing themselves from her? Are they uncomfortable talking about what happened? Think about how you would feel in similar circumstances. It's a very lonely place to be.
In the most general way, tell your friend that you heard about what happened and that you're so sorry she's in this situation. If your friend asks how you found out, be as honest as you can be without hurting her. If it was a third-person who told you, you don't need to name names.
2) Be a good listener and keep the questions to a minimum
She may not be ready to talk and may be unsure of her own feelings. Instead, prime yourself for being a good listener. Don't ask probing questions, prying for details that she doesn't want to discuss or isn't ready to divulge. Let her take the lead in the conversation. By listening, you'll be able to gauge her comfort level in what she's ready or not ready to talk about.
Remind your friend that she can trust you. Ensure her that you'll keep everything she tells you private and MEAN it. If someone has a public profile or has been deeply hurt by someone close to her, she may be particularly wary of other people--including good friends.
3) Offer your best advice
She may be grappling with a series of difficult decisions. For example, should she file for divorce, should she seek custody of the kids, should she leave for a vacation in Sweden, and should she talk to the press? It's hard to know what's right and wrong for a friend unless you are in her shoes and know all the facts. Yet, you only know part of the story--what you've heard or what you've been told, not what she's experienced.
My feeling is that friends expect to get unsolicited advice from their close friends. That doesn't necessarily mean that your friend will act upon it but at least you will have provided her with someone else's outside perspective--an opinion from someone who knows and cares about her.
If she rejects what you say, she may have not told you everything, she may not be ready to hear or act upon what you have to say, or she may simply have a different opinion. Unless your friend is engaging in obviously self-destructive behavior, you probably should step back and give her some time to consider or reject your advice.
4) Let her know that you are there for her
At times like this, women need their female friends. Tell her explicitly that you want to help out in any way you can. Even if you feel uncomfortable talking about her husband's 14 purported mistresses or the prognosis of her illness, let her know you are there for her in concrete ways. You can offer to watch the kids so she can have some time off or offer to drive her to treatments. Ask her what she needs. If she isn't able to tell you, make some suggestions.
Being there is a process rather than a one-time event. Check in with her periodically even if she doesn't feel like chatting. Keep the calls short or write her a brief note, telling her that you want her to know that you're thinking about her and are available to help when needed. If her needs or those of her family are overwhelming, ask her permission to organize a group of friends who can take turns, for example, bringing meals to the family on different evenings. Recognize that her needs may change over time.
5) Resist the temptation to tell her that you know how she feels
You may have experienced death, divorce or disability, but your experience may be far different than hers. Show respect to your friend by listening and responding to her personal experience rather than reciting your own. People need to find their own ways to understand and cope with bad news and loss.
I truly hope that Silda Spitzer, Elizabeth Edwards, Jenny Sanford and Elin Nordegren have good friends. Sometimes only our female friends can help us dig out of an emotional crisis by being there, providing support, and helping us recognize our own strengths.
Have a question about female friendships? Send it to The Friendship Doctor.
Irene S. Levine, PhD is a freelance journalist and author. She holds an appointment as a professor of psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine. Her new book about female friendships, Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Breakup with Your Best Friend, was recently published by Overlook Press. She also blogs about female friendships at The Friendship Blog and at PsychologyToday.com.