I have to admit, I’m pretty bad at handling people in crisis. I wish it were different, but I usually end up either saying something stupid, or doing something either dumb or insensitive. The following article is pretty good advice on handling people in crises.
I’m not particularly qualified by profession or education to offer counseling or therapy, wisdom or advice. I don’t have a doctorate or a master’s degree, I’m not a theologian or philosopher, and I can’t talk about the economy or politics or the universe. I will say, though, it is widely known in my small circle that I make a most perfect s’more in the microwave, I am super good at tucking sleepy children into their blankets, I know how to pack a fun and diverse picnic basket, and I can text with the thumb dexterity of a 14-year-old girl. There are some things I’m good at, and they say you learn by doing. Four years ago, my husband died in my arms on our bedroom floor after twelve hours of a misdiagnosed illness that doctors thought was the flu. If it’s true that you learn by doing and that life’s circumstances make you an expert in your own trade, then I am by default highly qualified to talk about how to mend a broken heart and shattered life.
In my first book, And Life Comes Back, I wrote, “I belong to a third culture now. I am neither a whole, healed woman, nor will I wear black and grieve forever. I belong in this nebulous in-between place. We are a growing demographic, the brokenhearted us. You might belong on this team roster, or perhaps you are walking alongside someone who is. If you are wondering how to help someone in this place, let me tell you what I’ve learned.” Here is my short list of what is helpful— and what is not.
Helpful: “I’m bringing dinner for your family.” The maddening thing about food is that it’s just so necessary. Mealtimes kept showing up every few hours, and I found myself helpless to make it come together. When a friend called with a dinner plan, left a meal on my front porch, or dropped a restaurant gift card in the mail, they took the burden of meal planning right off my plate.
Not Helpful: “If there’s anything you need, give me a call.” Crisis brings a monster named Burden. He whispers dark secrets that make us think we’re exhausting you and your resources. So if it’s up to me to call you and ask for help, then I must battle the beast of burden. If you can give without waiting for a wish list, you can slay the dragon. If you see a need that you can meet, or just a simple way to lighten the load and brighten the day, please step in and do it. It will mean the world.
Helpful: “I’m sorry. I am so sad for you.” There really are no words for a situation that alters one’s entire world. There is no explanation, so free yourself from trying to find one. You actually don’t have to say anything. Compassion literally means ‘suffering with,’ and that gift doesn’t always require words.
Not Helpful: “He’s in a better place.” This is a tough one. We do not grieve as those who have no hope, but still we grieve. To say he’s in a better place has led my children to think their dad was eager to leave them behind. I know he has a better gig than we have, and frankly we’d really like to be where he is. But I don’t get to go. Reminding me how happy and healthy he is in heaven is like showing me a brochure for the most amazing vacation I’m not going on.
Helpful: “You’re welcome to join us.” Sometimes, I have just wanted to take the day off from being heartbroken. Sometimes I have been in a really good place, perhaps only for a day or even only for an hour, and I have loved the gift of somewhere to be, something to step into and a place to belong. Invitations are a gift and something to look forward to. Don’t assume your friend doesn’t want to go. Help give her a voice, and please don’t say her no for her. And if she comes to the party but leaves five minutes later, know that she tried her best, she wanted to stay, but the rules are different now.
Not Helpful: Expectations and commitments. In a season of crisis or depression, an emotional toll can come without warning. On one day, what I have feared with all my heart may come more easily than I expected; on another day, what I thought I could conquer may bring me to my knees. I, personally, have needed acknowledgment that nothing is normal anymore, that everything has changed for me. I have needed a free pass from any expectations on anyone’s calendar, since I have not been able to step into what was, sit at a table where Robb would have been, or attend a party where he would have been by my side. I have needed the freedom to clear the calendar, to say no, to be alone.
Helpful: “I know you don’t think you can, but you’re doing this.” The task of getting out of bed can feel like a righteous uprising. A five-minute errand can feel like running a marathon. Admittedly, I am an affirmation junkie. I thrive in the sunshine of someone else’s encouragement. When a person I love has noticed a small milestone and celebrated the smallest victory, I am buoyed with courage to try the next challenge. Tell your friend she’s doing an important job with tremendous courage, no matter how little she is doing well.
Not Helpful: “God won’t give you more than you can handle.” Um, yes he will. Good grief, are you kidding? I can’t handle most of this! The thing is, he never promised not to give me more than I could handle. But he promised he wouldn’t make me do it alone.
If you are one of us, stuck in the in-between third culture of grief, there’s a whole new playbook to follow. Take the time to be alone; isolation is normal. Go to the party if you want to, and leave ten minutes later if you have to. Don’t be afraid of medication and therapy. People get therapy for a broken bone, and it’s no different with a broken heart. People take medications for kidney infections, and depression can be just as toxic. God is good and antidepressants aren’t bad. If you are hurting and you know what you need, say it. Others don’t know what you need, and so many want to help. And, for crying out loud, give yourself a break on the thank-you notes. All the rules are different now, even the formalities of courtesy.
Take heart, my friend. You’re doing this.
Tricia Lott Williford’s great loves are teaching, writing, and her two young sons. Her first book, And Life Comes Back is an ECPA finalist for the 2015 Christian Book Award in the New Author category. Her second book, Let’s Pretend We’re Normal released in May, 2015. She lives in Colorado with her sons and blogs regularly at tricialottwilliford.com.