After a year and a half of homelessness in both Pennsylvania and California, I have been that friend going through hardships. What I appreciated most were the friends who listened actively and assisted directly without my having to ask. Those friends were few and far between, but I remain grateful for each one, and owe my current recovery to them ad infinitum. I am a direct witness to what steps and words of encouragement for a friend can help:

1. OFFER TO LISTEN WITHOUT JUDGEMENT. Many times those of us who are struggling are told to "buck up," or that "it couldn't be all that bad," denying for us the truly horrible life events we may be experiencing. To listen actively without judgement is hard, but feels wonderful for those on the other end of the phone or conversation.

To know that we are heard by someone we value is an insurmountable feeling, and to have our difficult experiences validated, seen as real, by someone who matters to us lets us know the pain we are enduring is not a delusion. The validation of our experience by close friends and family can also affirm that the hardship or difficulty is not our fault, and save us from the detrimental activity of blaming ourselves for something that could not be avoided.

2. OFFER TO HELP, but think about it carefully first. Consider your friend or family member closely, and review what you know about them and their situation. What might they need most, and are you truly in a position to offer it or part of it? Do not rush in to save a friend if what they need is actually something you can ill afford. Under no circumstances should you "give til it hurts"; that will only breed resentment and anger, and possibly tank the friendship permanently. One of the friends for whom I am most grateful could only afford to share $100 occasionally, and when he did, I know he gave with his whole heart. Thus I did not have to feel guilty, and he was able to give and feel good about what he was doing. His generosity and careful giving leads to another key suggestion:

3. BE SINCERE. Whatever you offer to do for a friend or say to a friend, do it with sincerity. Mean it, or don't do it at all. Nothing sticks in the craw worse than an insincere gift. Both parties usually know that the giving was not meant with good intentions, and resentment can build on both sides. Never offer to do more for someone than you can comfortably do without limiting or endangering your own resources, and don't offer what you really do not want to give. If your friend needs to talk at 2 a.m. and you are an early to bed person, let them know you love and care for them, but are unavailable after 9 p.m. Just because someone you love is going through a difficult time does not mean they are exempt from boundaries that you set.

In fact, be loving and caring, but DON'T OVERDO. "Don't give til it hurts" doesn't begin or end with money or time. All of your resources deserve to be protected, and if you take good care of yourself first, you will be that much more available for your friend. If you are well-rested and in a good mood, you will have the stamina to give without bound--or close to it. Do not assume that you owe your friend everything because they are experiencing difficulty. It may feel as if the world is falling in on them, but if you believe in their strength, they will come to appreciate the encouragement you give and renew their belief in themselves.

4. REMIND THEM THAT THIS TOO SHALL PASS. Hardships and trials may be severe, but remind your friend that they do not last forever. Even the worst life events come to an end, and assure your friend that you will stick with them as long as they will need you--if that is possible. When we are in the worst of a situation it often feels interminable, and the idea that we will be in that place forever haunts and terrifies us. Reminders that all trials pass can keep your friend uplifted and filled with hope, and without hope, even the most optimistic among us lose faith.

When all else fails, remember that sincere listening and a soft shoulder are the best gifts to those who are suffering. Sometimes a hug and a gentle squeeze can last a friend a lifetime. Somtimes words of encouragement for a friend are unnecessary when our actions show the love and support that we feel.

Author's Bio: 

Niama Leslie Williams, a Leeway Foundation Art and Social Change Grant recipient, and a participant in a Sable Literary Magazine/Arvon Foundation residential course in Shropshire, UK, possesses a doctorate in African American literature from Temple University, a bachelor’s in comparative literature from Occidental College, and a master’s in professional writing from the University of Southern California. Having lived in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, for 15 years, Dr. Williams now resides in Los Angeles, California.

Dr. Williams has participated in several writers’ conferences, including the Squaw Valley Community of Writers (2000), Hurston/Wright Writers Week (1996), and Flight of the Mind (1993). Her work has appeared in Poets & Writers Magazine; Dark Eros: Black Erotic Writings; Spirit & Flame: An Anthology of African American Poetry; Catch the Fire: A Cross-Generational Anthology of Contemporary African-American Poetry; Beyond the Frontier: African American Poetry for the 21st Century; Mischief, Caprice, and Other Poetic Strategies (Red Hen Press); A Deeper Shade of Sex: The Best in Black Erotica, and Check the Rhyme: An Anthology of Female Poets & Emcees. Check the Rhyme was nominated for an NAACP Image Award (2007).

Her prose publications include essays and short stories in MindFire Renewed, Midnight Mind Magazine, Tattoo Highway #6, Obsidian II: Black Literature in Review, and Sojourner: The Women’s Forum. She has 13 titles available for sale on her Storefront (

Dr. Williams’ radio show, “Poetry & Prose & Anything Goes with Dr. Ni” (, is currently on hiatus; there she interviews authors about their writing lives and deepest secrets. Her short story “The Embrace” was selected for the 2006-2007 Writing Aloud series at the InterAct Theatre Company in Philadelphia, PA.

Of her purpose for writing Dr. Williams says: "I frequently do not err on the side of caution in my writing, but I believe in the purpose of it: to speak to the things others do not want to speak of, with the hopes of reaching that one woman, or her lover, or her friend, who refuses to deal with her pain, who hides from it, who doesn't think she'll survive it. That's the audience I hope to reach."