10 Ways To Support A Heartbroken Friend (Even If You Think She's Overreacting)

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I’ll never forget the night I was last broken up with. One night I went to the regular biweekly meeting we both attend, and … he never showed up.

I knew what that meant. He and his wife had patched things up, he was not getting a divorce, after all … and I would never see him again.

I don’t know how I got through that meeting. I had to pretend nothing had happened. My heart beat with odd little jerks; my entire chest hurt. I couldn’t believe it was true.

And I didn’t know how I would go on.

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When a friend needs your support — you help them

All I could think about was getting home. I had just joined a breakup site that had a chat room that was always manned for people who needed to talk.

At least, I told myself, at least I can go home and find someone who will understand.

Half an hour after I logged on, I was thrown out of the chat … for being too upset.

It didn’t seem to be the kind of help I needed.

What sort of breakup help site throws people out for being too upset?

So there I was, on the worst night of my life, having already gone through brain cancer with my late husband, having been widowed, dealing with two querulous elderly relatives who were getting to be harder to manage by the day, having no friends and no family, and now losing the one person I had hoped I could count on …

… sobbing all alone.

You don’t want to be this kind of friend. If you’re running any sort of help group for people in crisis, this goes double for you.

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Why some people become inconsolable during a breakup

This particular breakup site held fast to the “distract yourself absolutely and get over all thoughts of the person as fast as possible” school of thought.

I wasn’t toeing the line.

A lot of people subscribe to this school of thought, especially when a person has been broken up for more than a couple of months. This is when friends and relatives start tapping their foot under the table, thinking, Shouldn’t she be over it already?

The answer here is: Sometimes, and sometimes not.

It’s important to know that those people, like I was that night, who completely collapse emotionally when it becomes clear that a relationship is over, for whom months go by and they are no closer to recovery, may be what therapist Pia Mellody calls “love addicts.”

She defines this as “a very painful compulsive behavior in which one person loves another with compulsive intensity and in ways that are not in the best interest of either person.”

Whether these people are codependent or not, writes Mellody, they cannot “relate functionally to nor break with the object of their intense desire to enmesh.”

People like this are desperately dependent on the object of their affection. This need not be a romantic partner, although most of the time it is.

This could be a parent trying to straighten out a drug-addicted child, or a friendship where one person has come to rely emotionally on the other.

You could also see an emotional reaction this severe right after someone has passed away, for example, especially if the death was sudden; or if someone receives terrible health news, such as if cancer has returned and is now terminal.

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You may feel your friend is overreacting, but their pain is still real 

In the case of a love addict who has lost their primary relationship, Mellody writes that the emotional pain the person is in can be so unbearable the person becomes suicidal, overdoses on drugs, or commits a crime.

People who become this emotionally dependent on, or addicted to, a relationship have never seen a healthy relationship modeled in their entire lives, Mellody tells us. They’ve had a tough background, and that’s why they’re in so much pain right now.

If this is your friend, it’s important to keep that in mind when you receive that desperate late-night phone call, complete with sobbing and tears.

Donna Cunningham, MSW, writes that one reason we try to shut people down who are very upset and crying is that we are uncomfortable being bombarded with so much painful emotion.

Generally, it isn’t the right thing to do, as I could readily attest that night I found myself sobbing alone.

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10 ways to support an inconsolable friend after a breakup

1. Don’t stop another person’s tears or anger out of your own needs

In a time like this, people want to be heard, understood, and cared about, and the thing to do is take some deep breaths and calm yourself so that you can listen.

2. Try not to end up as tearful or angry as the person who came to you for help

You need a calm focal point of balance, so you can just hear what the other person has to share.

3. If they’re so upset they’re incoherent, the other person may need a moment to balance

Ask them to stop and take a few deep breaths and then tell you more.

4. Determine if the person is in actual danger or thinking of doing something impulsive

Listen in case the person says something that leans in that direction. Decide whether it’s something that can best be handled by your own sympathetic ear, or whether a trip to the doctor or the ER might be necessary.

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5. Don't shame them

They already feel bad enough. Don't remind them of their own culpability. 

6. Tread carefully if they try to latch onto you emotionally

Some people are looking to turn over responsibility for their lives, and if your advice doesn’t turn out well, they may blame you. Or, as in my experience on the “Just get over it” breakup site, some people aren’t ready to assimilate that advice just yet.

7. Remember that we don’t always have the answers for other people

Even when we do have good advice, there’s an appropriate time and way to talk about them, and this may not be it.

One story that comes up in my mind as I write this is the debate that goes on in children’s hospitals, about how and when parents should inform a young child that the child himself, or a family member, is terminally ill.

Those who work with terminally ill children often tell parents that if a child is asking, that means they are ready to hear.

8. Stick to the facts

Clarity can help beat back feelings of doom and paralyzing loss.

RELATED: Why You Shouldn't Forget To Check In On Your Strong Friend

9. Emphasize their strengths

Let the know you have faith that they will make it through this.

10. Be patient with their methods of stress management

What one person sees as a catastrophe may not look like one to you. It’s important to see things through their eyes and to take their feelings seriously.

Also, remember that if a person’s had a series of blows like I’d had leading up to that fateful night, something they could ordinarily handle may look insurmountable to them at that time.

The support people often want most is validation of their distress. I know I sure could have used it that night.

RELATED: 5 Powerful Steps To Heal A Broken Heart

Bonus tip:

The most important thing you can do when someone calls you or comes over crying on breakup night is to let them know you see and understand their perspective.

One other time when I had been broken up with, a stranger in a different chat room, whom I’d never chatted with before and never saw again, typed me some words of wisdom I found oddly comforting.

She told me that I might never get an explanation from the person for why they broke up with me because sometimes the person doesn’t even know himself.

And that is absolutely true. I found that just thinking about that made me feel much better.

If you have some offbeat insight about the situation such as this person had, share it. Sometimes a moment of philosophy can take us out of panic and grief.

RELATED: The 6 Not-So-Pretty (But Totally Normal) Stages Of A Breakup

Share resources about emotional challenges

Lastly, some people feel comforted by reading resources about what happened.

I know over the years since my last breakup, I have read and discovered a lot about what in my childhood made me feel so dependent on this person, and what in their childhood made him so primed to do the things he did.

It can take our emotions a long time to catch up to what we’re learning, but sometimes letting a person have their cry out, and then going on the internet with them to look for books or videos about surviving a breakup can be a useful show of support.

A plate of cookies does wonders sometimes, too. 

Consider all these ways of helping your friend, child, or relative feel less alone when they ring up with their drama because that’s what it’s really all about — feeling less alone.

RELATED: How To Get Over A Breakup — 20 Crucial Things To Do (& Not Do) After Breaking Up​

P.D. Reader is a level one student in the NCGR School of Astrology. She runs Unfaithful: Perspectives on the Third-Party Relationship on Medium and talks relationship and astrology on her website.

This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.