What is the right way to say, “I would be there for you if I could, but I just can’t?”
— Repaying From an Empty Tank
Repaying From an Empty Tank: The right way is when that’s the only possible answer.
But I hope before you say that to her, you’ll try to figure out a way to be there for her that you can manage. Long phone calls and pat/empty reassurances aren’t the only things on the care menu, are they? Or, if they are, do they need your full attention?
I’m thinking along a couple of lines. For the alternatives to long calls, think of all the possible expressions of friendship. Maybe walk together, run errands together, add her errands to yours, go escape to a movie together — assuming you live close by.
If you’re running this friendship from a remote location, then you have fewer options, but you can still send her postcards — buy, address and stamp them in bulk — or throw in ear buds and let her talk at you while you work out or empty the dishwasher or fold laundry or whatever. If you’re in line somewhere or early for a medical appointment or parked outside waiting for someone who’s running late, then shoot her a friendly text. Plug her mailing address into a favorite shopping site and periodically click her small gifts, like good coffee, flowers or books.
Just some examples, but you get the idea — take the things you’re already doing and see if there’s room around the edges for her. Texting her a hello or a silly photo isn’t a 30-minute listening session, but it’s a whole lot better than nothing.
These little adaptations can actually help you feel better, too, even as tired as you are now. Getting your mind off your own stuff for a bit and doing a small kindness for another could be more restorative than draining. If you’re just flat-out in emergency mode and there’s nothing you can give without an emotional cost, then be upfront about that: “I want to be as good a friend to you now as you were to me when I went through my terrible time. Unfortunately, I’m still in/back in emergency mode. I am sorry to let you down.”