Finding room for your burdens on my back

About a dozen years ago, my best friend went through a difficult time. It was actually more than just difficult; as the miscarriages added up, they seemed to obscure everything else and take over her life. We had lived together for several years in college, but we had graduated, gotten married, started our families, and now lived more than a thousand miles apart. We’d talk on the phone a couple of times a month, but I never knew what to say. I called because I loved her and I knew I needed to, but it always took a certain amount of pysching myself up to pick up the phone. She felt powerless. I felt helpless. I didn’t know whether to listen or to offer advice, and I was always sure I was going to stick my foot in my mouth. And then there was the fact that while we both had toddler sons, I had gone on to have a daughter as well. I think it was hard for both of us not to retreat from the friendship. When I got pregnant with my third child, telling her was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.

In the years since that time, I’ve talked with friends about their unhappy marriages, and given (probably bad) advice from the point of view of my own solid union. I’ve chatted online with a friend whose son was dying while my own houseful of sons created chaos at my feet. I’ve tried to listen sympathetically to unmarried friends, while staring at the diamond on my own ring finger. In each case, there was absolutely nothing I could do to fix the situation, and listening didn’t feel like enough.

Right now, someone I’m close to is going through a hard time financially. My own family enjoys enough affluence to be comfortable, but not enough to make their problems go away. And even the daily, easy interactions we used to have (“What did you do this weekend?”) feel charged (“Dinner and the Ira Glass concert, how about you?”). I think we’ve both retreated from our relationship, and I know that it’s hard for me because I just feel so darn guilty. In Mosiah 4 we learn that we’re supposed to impart our substance with those that need it, without judgment, and that makes me worry that we’re prioritizing piano lessons and date nights above the more serious needs of our friends.

How have you helped friends through difficult situations, especially when your own life seems relatively easy by comparison? How do you resist the urge to retreat and manage not to stick your foot in your mouth? How do you know how much to help? How do you know when you’re “mourning with those that mourn” and not just making things harder for them?

About Shelah

(Editor-in-Chief) lives in Salt Lake City with her husband and six kids. She has a BA in English Teaching from BYU, an MA in American Culture Studies from Washington University in St. Louis, and an MFA in Creative Writing at BYU. Her work has been published in Dialogue, the Mormon Women Project, Irreantum, BYU Studies, and Segullah. When she’s not writing or wrangling, she can often be found running through the city in the pre-dawn darkness.

14 thoughts on “Finding room for your burdens on my back

  1. It is hard isn’t it? I have wondered (about myself) if in retreating from a loved one that is in need, are we afraid, are we judging? Because certainly we are not being careless, are we?
    I struggle with that because in many times when I have worked through various trials, I tried not to bother anyone, and then it seemed as if “no one cared or helped me”. But looking back I was wrong, because I found that the degree of help one receives, really depends on the recepiant and their faith and then the giver also. Who hopefully will give without strings attached, such as guilt or anger or shame.

    I love that picture you have by Caitlan Connoly, because I have it. When I saw this picture I felt that I knew that poor woman, bent over with a big burden on her back. I thought, wait a minute, I know her and she is me. The title is “Is there something on my Back”. That’s how trials make me feel and maybe others. There is something on my back, in my life, that is weighing me down, but if I ignore it enough, it might go away or at get smaller. I would say that if you love your friend, then love your friend. There is no shame in helping regardless of your economic circumstances. The Savior has mentioned something to the effect that if you find yourself “ashamed” of Him and his name and his people, then what would stop him from being ashamed of us and to bring us into the presence of our Heavenly Father.(para phrased)

  2. I try to be open about feeling awkward. I think it helps.
    I also tell myself that if I want them to be strong enough to live through their situation, I can certainly be strong enough to tolerate feeling awkward or guilty while listening to them.
    I also tend to try to be sensitive in what I say. Why would I brag about a pricey date to someone who has financial problems? Why wouldn’t I instead say that I cleaned out the closet or discuss how I worried that my teenager had too much homework? Why would I brag about my teenager being perfect to someone who is dealing with a rebellious one?

  3. About knowing when to retreat: you should trust your friends and family to be honest with you. It really bothered me when a friend decided to step back from our relationship for “my own good”, even when I said I would prefer them not to. It felt like an excuse, that they just didn’t want to be friends anymore. If you can be honest about being awkward, and let them have input, you’ll probably find some relief.

    About feeling guilty that you have too much: if you’re ignoring promptings to help others, that’s something to consider. Otherwise, please don’t compare yourself to others and allow yourself to feel guilty. It can overwhelm you, and make you want to turn away from the friendship to cope. If you can accept your good fortune and love others without feeling responsible for their situations, you’ll enjoy deeper, stronger relationships. And guilt drives away the spirit’s quiet voice. If you can be at peace, you might be prompted to help in different ways than you currently feel like you “should”.

    And, regardless, you have a desire to comfort and mourn with your friends and family, and I think that’s beautiful. Thank you for sharing :)

  4. I listen and I let the person know I am thinking of them. If there is anything specific I can do to help-make a meal, babysit kids, take them to an appointment I let her know.

  5. I felt that way recently as I listened to a friend talk about her toxic relationship with a parent, knowing I haven’t shared a similar experience. My relationship with my parents is not always perfect, but is good, understanding, and loving; a balm. I realized that all I could do is validate her. I could listen, and let her know that I am sorry, and remind her she is not making those grievous errors with her own kids and loves them the way she ought to be loved.

    It is hard to know what to do. I really don’t have the answers or relative experience to say to friends and family I understand a portion of your grief. But as one who has grieved I know what it has been like to be acknowledged in my grief. I am glad for anyone who has been my friend at times I needed it most. Doing something always trumps doing nothing, so even if it is just validation, listening and acknowledgement- I try to do that. And in the rare moments I can hear the spirit whisper to do something, often acts of anonymous kindness- I do those and hope they help people know they are not forgotten and ease any need for gratitude directed to me.

  6. As one whose friends have retreated when I’ve gone through some soul-wrenchingly hard things, I can honestly say a few things: I understand — sometimes it’s just too hard to see the horror of a friend’s pain and not be able to do anything about it. But, as I’ve gone through it (and am still going through it), I realized that I don’t need anyone to fix it or help make it better. Really, there’s nothing anyone can say or do. What has helped me most has been friends who have come and stood witness to my pain. “Mourning with those who mourn” doesn’t mean bringing over a casserole, it means simply weeping with someone who is weeping. I promise you, listening is enough. Saying, “Wow, that really sucks” is enough. Sitting next to me on my couch as I cry is enough. Bearing witness to my pain is enough.

  7. The best example I can give of offering help to someone was when the husband of a friend came up to me at church right after I had had a miscarriage and asked me how I was and then listened. The thing about this was–HIS wife had just announced HER new pregnancy the same weekend I lost my baby. He was one of only a few people who approached me. I think everyone else just didn’t know what to say. I so appreciated his gesture and learned that it is way better to just send the message that you care, that you are there than to do nothing. There was absolutely nothing he could say or do to change my circumstances and we both knew it but at least I felt a little less alone.

  8. I know this feeling from both sides, and both are so hard. This past year, one of my dearest friends was so hard to speak to….her joyous, healthy, mentally strong spouse, gregarious popular oldest son, happy, talented, so popular she’s fought over oldest daughter, peaceable quiet, NORMAL younger kids….telling me of her morning jog and happy family life, prattling on while I, with polar opposites, fell silent.

    These past few hard years I’ve been grateful for two things. That before she realized how bad it was, that she never, ever pressed me for further information or made any comparisons. And that when she did know _some_ of my breaking that year, that she tried to give me no advice, or tell me to get over it, or even point out any of my blessings. She allowed my quiet grieving and just loved me anyway.

    It was enough, and our friendship has survived.

  9. I love what Andrea said. I have had financial hardships in the past, surrounded by people who were on much stronger financial footing. I never minded that they were in different circumstances than I was. I have had family problems when others stood on solid ground. I have lost dear ones when everybody else seemed to be in a happy bubble. And I was always glad when one of my friends listened and sympathized. Listening is a gift of greater importance than I ever realized. And even someone shooting off a text saying, “I’m thinking about you. How are things?” was powerful.

    Now that I am in different circumstances, and surrounded by people I love who are struggling through hard hard trials, I’m trying to remember how wonderful it was just to be loved where I was. I didn’t compare then, and I’m hoping they don’t compare now.

    Thanks for the thoughtful post.

  10. What I have realized over the years is that a lot of people don’t think before they speak, and some comments stick with us for years. It took me over 10 years to get pregnant with my one and only kid. So many people said hurtful things, most of them unknowingly. And the fact is you don’t know how someone feels unless you have walked in their shoes. So I think the best thing to do is to try to be mindful of what you say, give people the benefit of the doubt, and realize that sometimes all you can say is “wow, that sucks. I am so sorry.”

  11. Timely post. I recently added baby number four to my brood; and while I am completely happy and in love with my sweet babe, my heart is pained for my friends whose arms are still empty while I have nearly more than I can handle. I remember on more than one occasion weeping for them and feeling a type of survivor’s guilt. Why did my baby live while theirs did not? Why am I so abundantly blessed while they go without?

    A good friend of mine is going through infertility issues and she is on my mind quite often. I try to be a good friend to her, as much as I know how to be anyways. I don’t mention anything to her about my little baby, or the difficulties that 4 kids can bring. I put little notes of love and inspiration in the mail for her. Sometimes I will drop her favorite beverage and candy on her front door step. I text and call as I see appropriate. She is always in my prayers. However, I learned that she has recently told a mutual friend of ours that being around people who have babies makes her want to be violent on that person. She can’t stand to be around them and would rather have every person in her life with a baby currently out of her life. That comment hurt….hurt badly. I realize my friend is in a great deal of pain and may not entirely mean that comment. But I grapple with what am *I* supposed to do with that? Do I leave her alone like she asks? Is my friendship actually just a trigger to her? Would she be better off without me? Sometimes it feels that bearing one another’s burdens isn’t so easy.

  12. Wow, that’s a tough one, Haybay. Someone violated a confidence and gossiped, and now you’re left in the middle, not knowing what to do. The Sunday School answer would be to pray about it and seek inspiration on how to approach her, and then approach her lovingly, making sure this is about her and your friendship and not just about you, but perhaps someone who has actually been in a similar circumstance would have a better insight.

  13. Good question. I could improve in this area. I am, however, very good at showing compassion towards those who are unmarried, because I was single until 34, and I remember all the “helpful” comments I received as I moved further and further away from the average age for marrying in the LDS culture. People felt very emboldened to enumerate all of my faults because, clearly, if I just fundamentally changed who I was, that would ensure a spouse. (No matter that I could point to dozens of married women who had these same “faults” that needed fixing.) From my own experience, I found that having people accept me, validate me and acknowledge the difficulties of being single and childless in such a family-focused church worked the best. I recently have been put in a situation where showing compassion is part of my job description. So my prayers are focused on learning to be a better listener and learning to be soft and kind with people who are suffering in one way or another.

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