By Rabbi Menachem Rosenfeld
This article was written to discuss how a person can help someone who is facing, or undergoing, a divorce. However, many of the suggestions apply equally to helping someone who has lost a family member, had a medical setback, lost a job, etc. In Pirke Avos it describes 48 ways in which Torah is acquired. (Avos 6:6) One of those paths is referred as “Nosei B’Ohl Im Chaveiro” which is loosely defines as being empathetic. To feel one’s pain, and to try to relieve it, is one of the ways we imitate the Ways of Hashem.
Divorce is one of the most traumatic events in a person’s life. On a scale of traumatic events, developed by researcher Holes and Rahe in 1967, divorce was deemed the second most traumatic event in one’s life, second only to the loss of a spouse. When we see a friend struggling with divorce issues, it is natural to want to help. But how? What actions may help in relieving their anguish. The following suggestions are made for the reader’s consideration. It is helpful to choose strategies that are in synch with your personality and the nature of your relationship with the friend in pain
LISTEN MORE THAN YOU TALK
There is no need to be a social philosopher or therapist in order to help a friend in pain. Be there when they want to talk and speak as a friend and not as a counselor. Sometimes words just fail us. Being there is of importance, at such times. A Rav once told a student of his, that few will remember what e.g. the Rav discussed with them in the Shiva home. They will only remember if he came or did not come. Be a good friend by being a good listener. Just be there for your friend. People who are in pain get comfort by knowing that friends are nearby and that they care. A corollary of this rule is not to give advice freely. Unless you are a trained professional, saying the wrong thing can be unintentionally searing. That is the last thing you wish to inflict upon you hurting friend.
ASK WHAT YOU CAN DO
This advice works for so many of life’s stressors. It is simple but powerful advice Ask your friend what they would like you to do for them. It is that elementary. Don’t guess what they might need, but do ask what will be helpful for them.
LET YOUR FRIEND KNOW YOU WILL BE THERE FOR THEM WHEN THEY NEED YOU
You can’t be with your friend at every moment that they are experiencing pain. By letting them know that you will be there for them, they have the “permission” they might need to call, email, or text you when they feel the need to reach out for a support system.
DON’T MAKE THE DIVORCE THE ONLY TOPIC OF DISCUSSION
At times, conversations will need to discuss the mundane aspects of life. This is refreshing. Divorce cannot define your friend’s life. Discuss the same topics with the friend in pain as you would with any other individual to whom you feel close. If you wish to discuss the divorce, consider saying “Is it OK to discuss something divorce-related, or would you rather not do so?”
DON’T FORGET THE KIDS
A person going through a divorce may find it hard to juggle everyday activities. Volunteer to carpool the kids, to include them in your children’s activities, to bring them an occasional treat, etc.
WRITE NOTES OF ENCOURAGEMENT
Tell your friend that you are calling to check in, or Email this to them. Once they know you are there for them, the Chizuk will already be in place even if nothing of great weight is then discussed or contemplated.
GIVE HONEST FEEDBACK
Where appropriate, let your friends know how nicely behaved their children are, how dignified everyone is acting, how proud you are of your friend, etc. If something is amiss, try to find a solution before you enter into a discussion. Direct all your talk and actions towards positive ends.
Shamai gives us advice for life in a teaching found in Pirke Avos (1:15); “Say little and do much.” When we are undergoing a difficult challenge in life, we reach out to a support system of family and friends. If we have the opportunity to be part of that support, we will do well to concentrate less on what we say, and to rather concentrate on being an empathetic, and supportive, friend.
According to some suggestions, the word “am” (nation) and word “im” (together) have the same spelling for good reason. Being part our nation, requires us to be “together” with those who may be needing our support and friendship.
Rabbi Menachem Rosenfeld is a Divorce and Commercial Mediator, and attorney, in Fair Lawn, NJ.