When platitudes are not enough

A single mother of two teenage boys loses her job. Then she loses her car. Then her house. Then she can’t pay her bills. When this happened to Michelle Bergeron a few years ago, it was a slow-motion spiral out of control.

Her boys took part-time jobs to help. Then, her friends outside Tampa, Fla., some close, some not so close, began to step in. It started with small gestures: a bag of groceries, an invitation to dinner. Then it became more. After a friend learned that the water to Bergeron’s house had been shut off, she drove to the city water department and paid the bill.

“I don’t think I was embarrassed so much as humbled,” Bergeron said.

In the last few months, I’ve been surrounded by friends in need. I’ve seen friends be laid off, learn their spouses were leaving them, suffer devastating house fires, lose children in sudden ways. In each case, I struggled with what to do. I don’t make casseroles; I’m not likely to run into these friends in our daily lives, and I’m not part of their inner circle. Digital solutions include send an email, comment on a Facebook post, donate to a charity.

But what if you want to do more? What if you don’t want to succumb to the drive-by badges of contemporary friendship? What if you don’t believe all those platitudes: “Love ya! You’ll get through it! Everything happens for a reason!”

What if you just want to be an old-fashioned friend to a friend in need? Have the rules changed in our hurry-up lives? In search of answers, I reached out to some writers who have grappled with these themes.

Our instinct is often to say to a friend who’s suffering, “Let me know if there’s anything you need.” While well meaning, this gesture shifts the obligation to the aggrieved. Instead of offering “anything,” just do something. I heard of friends who sent packing supplies to someone getting divorced, and others who held a “fire shower,” a bridal shower type of gathering for a friend who had lost her home.

Leslie Jamison, author of “The Empathy Exams,” said that when she returned from an unexpected night at the hospital last fall, she received a call from a friend: “The second I told her what had happened, she said, ‘I’m coming over.’ She didn’t make me ask. She let me know that she wanted to; she put the impetus on herself and her own desire to care for me, rather than making me shoulder the burden of the request.”

Likewise, when Jamison was hit by a car years ago, her boss at the bakery where she worked brought over a poster that her colleagues had signed, as well as a bin full of supplies so that she could make cake decorations at home. “She knew I needed to feel useful, and to feel like I was missed,” Jamison said.

A common plight of people in crisis is that they feel isolated or ostracized. One friend told me, “Your social life gets nuked.” A good friend forces a date onto the calendar. Among my own circle, I heard tales of binge-watching bad television, dinner plans every Thursday, a regular coffee. One old friend, going through a divorce, received a call from his best friend on the other side of the country. “Let’s find a weekend to get away,” he said. “We’ll eat, drink, talk, drink some more, see a basketball game. My wife even gave us a pass to go to two strip clubs.”

Meghan Daum, the author, most recently, of “The Unspeakable,” said that when her mother was dying, the best thing her friends did for her was to continue to socialize with her.

Everyone seems to agree that there’s a list of hackneyed phrases we should avoid. Some things don’t get better, everything’s not always for the best, there isn’t always a bright side.

Alain de Botton, the best-selling author of many books, including “Art as Therapy,” told me that he was once deeply worried about “a mess I was in with the media.”

“A friend of mine did the best thing,” he said. “Rather than say everything would be OK, he said quite simply: ‘I will like you if I’m the last person to do so. There’s nothing you can do to put me off you. You’re stuck with me for life. You may hate yourself, and the world may, too; but I won’t follow suit.’”

De Botton called the gesture comforting: “Friends should entertain the darkest scenarios and show you that these would, nevertheless, be survivable.”

Paradoxically, sometimes the best way to be a friend to someone in crisis is to change the subject. Jamison said that for a long time, she would try to meet a friend in whatever emotion the friend was inhabiting.

“If she was sad, I came into the sadness with her,” she said. But over time, she realized that sometimes it’s better to distract the other person. “If a friend seems exhausted by the prospect of narrating something again, then I do think it can be helpful to tell them something from my own life, to give them a chance to be useful in return.”

The writers I spoke with all expressed skepticism of social media.

“Don’t get me started,” Daum said. “I see a lot of people saying things mostly for the sake of showing other people that they ‘know’ such-and-such person.”

But when I posed the question on my own Twitter and Facebook accounts, I received a ringing endorsement of social media. Everyone had a story of how online friend circles provided moral support, prayers, even an impromptu rally to clean up the yard. Cherie Herrman, a friend who suffered a house fire, said she understood that some people prefer privacy, but when your house goes up in flames, everyone knows.

If there is a common theme, it’s that while technology does offer support, many still crave the real thing. Crisis is a test of friendship, and success, in this case, is measured in intimacy.

“We always imagine that those in trouble go into another zone,” de Botton said, “that they are no longer human. But they remain who they always were. Stop being so darn strange just because Mom died or I have cancer. It’s the same old me.”

And me, in this case, is better off with you. After all, that’s why we’re friends.