For pretty much all of my adult life, most (if not all) of my closest friends and I lived far apart from each other. Some of us were going to school, others were starting jobs, and some were getting engaged and planning weddings. We had to adapt our friendships to be long-distance (which I say is totally a skill) and found that there were tons of pain points. We lived in different time zones, worked at different hours, and had different things on our plates. We missed happy hours and nights out and getting to cheer each other on or cheer each other up.
And while all of that was hard, by far the worst was the inability to just immediately be there if someone was going through a hard time. I couldn’t just knock on their bedroom doors, walk to their nearby apartments, or hop in the car for a short drive to get to them. Now, getting to someone when we needed each other would’ve meant hours-long drives or plane rides across the country—not exactly doable at the last minute if the situation wasn’t a full-on 10 (and not necessarily then either). Now, everyone is dealing with that reality as we hit the one-year anniversary of the pandemic, which, as we know all too well, has kept friends and family far away.
Luckily, you can absolutely be there for your friends even when you can’t actually physically be there. A little creativity and plenty of communication will help your friends feel supported and loved—no matter how far away you have to be.
Ask them what you can do
It might seem like taking the easy way out to just straight-up ask your friend what they need from you, but it’s the best way to cut to the chase and allow you to give support in a way that will actually really help.
“There is often a tendency for us to feel the need to assist others in the way we want to. So the best way to support our friends in this time is the way they need to be supported,” Nikita Banks, LCSW, a therapist and host of the Black Therapist podcast, said. “The easiest way to help our friends now is to ask them, ‘how can I support you?’ When asked at first, most people don’t know how to answer that question. For many, it is the first time they have been asked. But when people come to you with things they are struggling with, it is very intimate.”
Even just asking the question can be a small way to show up for them and show your support, Brooke Sprowl, LCSW, therapist and founder of My LA Therapy, said.
If they’re not sure how to answer the question or aren’t sure they even want to answer the question, you can then follow up with some specific suggestions that might be helpful and then they can tell you what would be best, Sprowl explained. Maybe it’d help if you kept your phone close so they could text or call if they felt like they needed to talk, maybe they really need you to send dinner or share their news with a mutual friend so that they don’t have to. Offering suggestions means they can do a little less if they’re overwhelmed.
Asking is a good start.
Pick up the phone
It might sound extremely obvious, but Sprowl pointed out that calling, texting, and FaceTiming are all really good ways to show your friends you’re there for them, even if you can’t be, you know, actually there for them. Send them support without asking too many questions in case they’re not in a place where they can do a deep-dive into the ins and outs of what happened. Maybe there’s a funny story or wild memory that’s relevant to what’s going on or how they’re feeling that will make them smile.
And don’t be afraid to call if you normally text or FaceTime rather than a regular voice call—think outside the usual routine and switch things up.
“Sure, you can call and check in on someone, but does a video call make you feel more connected? Does your loved one feel more connected that way? When’s the last time you saw the bottom half of your loved one’s face? Maybe change up the routine and video chat instead of texting,” Erin Parisi, LMHC, a licensed mental health counselor, said. “What about sharing funny memes or videos that make you think of your loved one? Sharing a laugh can make us feel connected. It can be an easy way to tell someone they’re on your mind.”
Check in even when they aren’t asking for help
Yes, plenty of friends reach out when they need someone’s support, but lots of people also don’t feel especially comfortable doing that, as Parisi noted. Checking in with your friends to see how they’re doing and letting them know that you’re there for them if they need you can be a game-changer if they’ve been struggling, but didn’t want to reach out and ask for support.
It can be as simple as a quick text, but just making it clear that you’re there for them and care about them can mean a lot.
“Maybe being there for your loved one means running their errands for them when they don’t feel up to it, or if your loved one is at higher risk,” Parisi suggested. “Can you do their grocery shopping? Fill up their gas tank? Pick up prescriptions? Get their glasses fixed, dry cleaning done, oil changed, their dog groomed… would your loved one appreciate having something crossed off of their to-do list?”
Pitching in and helping out can show support during a global pandemic, sure, but it can also be exactly what your friend who just had a baby or who has been spending long nights at work needs. Showing your support doesn’t have to just mean directly telling them you’re there for them, it can also be doing something that needs doing. They’ll appreciate it.
Meet them where they are
People are tired, stressed, and burnt out. They’re trying new things, realizing they actually have different priorities than they may have thought, and are just trying to make it through the day. One of the best ways you can be there for your friends right now is to make it clear that however they’re feeling, it’s more than OK.
“Allow your loved ones to express how they feel, even if you don’t feel the same,” Parisi said. “We’re all just doing the best we can. Be kind.”
You might be coping really well, but they might be struggling with something. You can have your feelings while still allowing them to feel theirs. Offer to just listen while they vent without jumping in with suggestions on how to make things better (but totally feel free to give advice if they give the OK). Sometimes that’s really what someone needs most.
Spend time together, apart
Listen, I know that we’re all sick of even the idea of a Zoom happy hour with your close friends, but we are now a year into this and finding ways to spend time together even when we can’t actually be together in person is a must. Consider something other than a never-ending Zoom call if that’s just not what’s helpful today—there are truly so many options.
“There are also a lot of apps and websites that have evolved so that we can spend time together while staying physically apart,” Parisi noted. “If you or your loved one are craving a distraction, schedule a time to watch a Netflix movie or show together, and comment to each other in the chat feature. Or do the same with any other platform and text as you watch. Video games or online gaming with friends offers another way to hang out while staying socially distant.”
Maybe you’re watching the new show everyone’s talking about or maybe you pressed play on an old favorite that you’ve watched together a thousand times before. Watching together is what matters most. Plus, as an added bonus, it gives you a ready-made topic of conversation, which means that if talking about what’s hard feels overwhelming, you still have an easy way to feel connected and chat without focusing on something that’s causing pain.
Be clear about your boundaries
When it comes to the pandemic, maybe your boundary is that you really don’t feel comfortable being there in person right now, even if you otherwise could be. But your boundaries could also be emotional ones. Maybe you’re also dealing with things that are really difficult or challenging right now. In that case, you might not be able to be there for your friend in the way that you want to be.
“ … [K]nowing what your limits are, what you have to give, and what you don’t have to give is really important,” Sprowl said. “I think that it’s possible to let someone know, ‘hey, I’d really like to be there for you and to support you and I’m really sorry that I can’t. I’m really sorry that I’m going through this stuff and I don’t have that to give right now and when I do, I will. At this moment, I’m going through my own stuff and I’m sorry that I can’t be there for you.’ So you can be really transparent about the conflict or the mixed feelings and it’s really OK to say you’re sorry that you don’t have more to give.”
It might sound harsh, but being honest with your friends about what you’re able to take on is absolutely OK. They should do that with you too!
Send them something to lift their spirits
One of my close friends used to have an annual busy period at work, like so many of us do. It meant long days and late nights and not a lot of free time for her. So I’d try my best to remember to send her a coffee or another treat to make one of those days a little easier. It was just a small thing, but it was a reminder that I’m here for her and care about her, even if calls or texts were few and far between for a while.
Parisi said that those kinds of things are a great way to show support to a loved one when you can’t be there in person. Maybe it’s a full-blown care package or maybe it’s just something small like a postcard, which, she noted, is both inexpensive and super thoughtful. Either way, your friend will know you’re thinking of them, which is what really counts.
Don’t forget to take care of yourself first
It’s only natural that you want to be there for your friends when they’re going through a hard time, but you first have to make sure that you’re taking care of yourself.
“It is OK to just be compassionate, but not take on other people’s problems,” Banks said. “Even the task of asking ‘how can I support you.’ You can’t ask this question if you aren’t prepared to show up for them in whatever way they need. So just make sure you are able to stabilize yourself before you overextend yourself.”
Being there for yourself—moving, sleeping, taking breaks to rest, processing what needs processing, etc—means that you’ll be able to show up and be there for your friend more effectively, even if you have to do so from afar.