The Face of Support

hands holding hands

“Support” is an oft-used word these days.  Because of this, it can be easy to think that we know what it is. 

Mary tells John his weight is unhealthy.  Is she being supportive?  She wants to be.  She thinks that her reminder will motivate him. Instead, he feels criticized and shamed.

LaTonya tells Shana that she knows how awful she must feel that her mother is dying.  LaTonya believes that she is being empathetic.  Shana is caring for a mother who was emotionally absent throughout her life. Her experience of caring for her dying mother is different from how it was for LaTonya, who felt her mother’s love throughout her life.  Words spoken to console missed the mark by miles.

In a recent New York Times article, Jeffrey Piehler speaks of his friends assuming that his decision to build his own coffin meant that he was abandoning his “fight against cancer.” After 11 years of both conventional treatment and clinical trials, he saw no more weapons with which to fight. He decided that his cremation would be within beautiful wood.  It took a while for his family members to find their way to supporting this project, which created not only a coffin but also many beneficial side effects.

When floods, hurricanes, blizzards, house fires or such occur, there often is an outpouring of help. Many express caring and generosity in literal ways.  The examples above are of individuals who wanted to express love and compassion, yet their actions flopped in that department because of their assumptions.

Truly being supportive often requires some investment to discover the REAL story. Standing in the openness of non-judgment, rather than making assumptions, invites a friend to speak from the inside out.  What is learned may be surprising and genuine.

What if investing such time isn’t possible or appropriate?  Simple acknowledgement is possible, powerful and supportive. It’s common for us to acknowledge an event, like a death or accident.  Yet these events are rarely resolved immediately. Checking in on a loved one periodically can feel like support, as can old-fashioned cards or e-cards.  How about a phone call to say “I’ve been thinking of you”?

An increasingly common mode of “offering support” is a problem-solving approach.    We want to offer something, so we offer solutions.  Women often complain when men tell them how to fix the problem.  She wants to be heard and known i.e. supported by him.  Asking if someone wants advice before offering it can prevent this good intention from turning into a fight.

Now picture yourself requiring some assistance with life tasks.  You are relieved that someone has said yes to your request.  As you wait for the ride, meal, whatever, you gradually realize that he/she isn’t coming. You may have preferred “I’ll be thinking of you” to an unfulfilled promise.  A gesture of support replaced the actual support and probably affected the relationship.

We all get by with a little help from our friends.  Most of us want to give and receive support.  Some tune in and give naturally.  As lives have become busier, some see no opening to be supportive of others. Others are so tuned into others’ needs that they promise more than they can deliver.  I urge everyone to notice and contribute by listening, acknowledgement, interest, and/or only offering what you can do AND having that match the support desired by the recipient.