As a 38-year-old woman who has already spent 19 years postmenopause, my life often feels out of sync with my peers.
Having experienced gynecological cancer as a teenager and, consequently, a radical hysterectomy at age 19, my late teens and early 20s revolved less around traditional coming-of-age milestones and more around survival. While my friends prepared for entrance into the workforce, I focused on relieving extreme postmenopausal side effects, which ultimately led me to start following the phases of the moon in 2001. It wasn’t the norm, to say the least, but my family and friends encouraged my healing path and emotionally supported me throughout that journey.
My healing didn’t end there. While life normalized as I hit my stride with career and health through my 20s and early 30s, my mid-30s slapped me across the face with a new pain: extreme infertility sadness. At first, this confused me. Having known since 1998 biological kids were not in the cards for me, I had already intellectually reconciled my identity as a nonfertile woman years ago. But, like most people who deal with a chronic illness or traumatic loss, I didn’t just deal with it once. I’ve needed to re-digest the consequences of my loss and grief throughout the twists and turns of life, especially as I’ve faced new milestones.
While I am forever grateful for my friends and family who’ve supported me through these years, I’ll be honest: It can feel isolating and frustrating to go through life events when others simply can’t relate. Should you find yourself in the position of not knowing how to support someone in your life suffering from something you don’t understand, here are nine tips I’ve learned from my support system. They helped me when I felt isolated and increased the depth of our connection, too:
1. Get to know them.
Remember, each chapter of life introduces new nuances to their scenario. Don’t make assumptions that you know precisely what they deal with. Instead, ask them and invest in them with focused listening and empathy. Make this a regular and consistent part of your relationship.
2. Ask them what they need.
Tell them you want to be there for them, and ask them to tell you what rock-solid support looks like. They may not have an answer right away, and that’s OK. Give them the space to figure it out. Then, listen to what they say and follow through with what you can.
3. Don’t judge.
There’s nothing worse than needing to confide in someone only to feel subtly judged for experiencing the highs and lows that come with healing. Anger, sadness, and even rage are totally healthy and reasonable emotions for someone entrenched in pain. Give your loved one permission to feel what they are going through without judgment.
4. Trust that they have what it takes to handle what they are up against.
The most powerful thing you can offer someone going through a hard time is belief in their resilience. This means acknowledging the pain without indulging the pain while simultaneously investing in their strengths and what’s going right for them.
5. Take care without caretaking.
Caretaking happens when we assume responsibility for someone else’s well-being, and it embodies hues of codependency. No matter how much you love someone, you don’t need to fight their battles for them. Instead, show love and care while trusting they have what it takes to rise in the face of their struggles.
6. Don’t disappear.
Remember, honesty is always the best policy, and letting someone know that you are struggling to understand, empathize, and relate is fair—assuming you can conjure the courage and humility to communicate this! Don’t ghost a friend or turn a blind eye to their struggles simply because you don’t know how to show up. If you don’t know how to be with them as they reconcile their pain, tell them.
7. Be a grounded optimist.
Encourage them to look on the bright side without denying the difficulties they face. Cliché phrases like “Everything happens for a reason” or “God only gives you what you can handle” can feel alienating. Seek to embody optimism while still acknowledging the pain may never go away. It’s OK to do both.
8. Be sensitive.
It’s so important to celebrate your successes and openly share your wins. However, be mindful and sensitive as you do. Don’t consistently call a friend struggling with infertility only to flip the FaceTime to showcase your happy, healthy children. If someone you know is suffering from chronic illness and their lifestyle choices are limited, communicate your own joys with sensitivity. This doesn’t mean withholding your happiness; rather, it means balancing it with empathy and enough awareness that not everyone has the same opportunities as you!
9. Offer love.
Never underestimate the power of warm and kind thoughts or the generosity of a loving presence. A heartfelt hug and the simple words “I love you” can go a very long way.