Holding hands

—Amy R., Saint Mary’s University, Nova Scotia, Canada

We’ve all been there. What do you say? What can you do? We want to ease the pain and cheer them up, but at the same time, the hurt is real and the grieving process has begun.

While there are no easy answers or quick fixes, providing support is part of the human experience—especially among friends. Here are a few things to keep in mind as you walk this path with a friend:

Respect their process—but speak up if you need to

Everyone is different. What has been helpful for you in the past may or may not be right for your friend. Respect their process, but encourage them to make healthy choices and to avoid doing ill-judged and self-destructive things. Painful experiences can awaken irrational parts of our thinking and draw us to say uncharacteristic things. As a friend, allow them some space to grieve in their own way, but don’t be afraid to step in and help guide them away from trouble.

This too shall pass

Be patient and supportive. Consider how you respond when a friend is physically ill. Usually we comfort them and help meet their immediate needs. No matter what you do, you know that someone with the flu won’t feel good until they’ve healed. In the context of a breakup, you’ll hear the story several times, give lots of hugs, be there while they vent or cry, and affirm that they’re not a horrible person doomed to a life of loneliness. The rational brain will soon return, and their thinking will become more balanced.

Support without giving advice

Your friend needs a friend. Now is not the time to interrogate them about choices they made, or to subtly remind them that you’ve been saying this was a bad idea. There will be time to process relationship patterns when the emotional wound has healed and they’re in a place to really hear what you say. Bite your tongue when you want to tell them what they should do. It rarely works out well, and when it doesn’t, they’ll blame you.

Male friends greeting each other

Reach out and stay connected

It’s normal after a breakup to want and need to spend more time alone. It’s important to reach out to your friend, in person or via text. It feels good to have someone check in on you and to be invited to a meal or an activity. Remember that someone just broke up with them and it’s easy to feel unwanted. Healthy distractions can be a part of the healing process, but be cautious about activities within the first week or two that are designed to cheer them up or get them back on their feet—especially if the activities involve alcohol or new relationships.

Don’t compare war stories—yet

As a way to relate or try to connect, it’s tempting to talk about your breakup experiences. To the vulnerable friend, this often feels like you’re making this all about you or trying to one-up their experience. Remember, right now they’re emotional, not rational. It’s OK to join in their frustration about the ex in general ways, but avoid going overboard and trashing the other person. This sometimes produces the opposite effect and your friend may start defending the ex-partner.

Know your limits

Being supportive doesn’t mean you skip a job interview or don’t study for a test so that you can stay with your friend. Share the support among your social network. If the grieving process becomes prolonged or thoughts become dark and suicidal, immediately seek the help of campus mental health professionals. As a front-line responder, you should realize that your role is to be a friend and get them the support they need.