Wednesday, July 17, 2013

How to help in a sensitive situation, and what not to say

I read a fantastic article today about what not to say to those who are ill.  It struck me as brilliant, not only for those who are ill, but those who are suffering from all sorts of other issues that they didn't ask for.  Depression, divorce, and other life-altering news.

We are all guilty of not knowing what to say in rough situations.  We, as humans want to fix things, so our natural instinct is to offer advice.  The unfortunate part is, we have no idea how we would react to situations until we've lived them.  We often give ourselves more credit than we're due, and telling a suffering person this only makes you seem callous and self-absorbed.

"But I'm only trying to help!  Why can't they just accept that it's the thought that counts!"

Because they're not in their right mind, and probably wont be for a very long time.  A grieving person, no matter what they're grieving for, has their heart broken, and their brain trying tirelessly to fix this broken heart, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  Occasionally the brain takes a break to take care of things it sees as absolute necessities, like children, but even things you may think are necessities, like eating and showering, may fall by the wayside.  Their broken heart and overworked brain is not going to have the time nor patience to consider how you're feeling.  Not because they're being rude, but because it's quite simply overworked, and being forced to prioritize.  This overworked brain has tunnel vision, and to be honest, unless you're a helpless child, you're unlikely to be anywhere near the tunnel.  It's a means of survival, not a selfish ploy, not a scream for attention and not an excuse to be lazy.  If this overworked brain takes any more onto it's plate, it will snap.  That's when bad things happen.

"But I'm not going to placate someone in a pity party, they need to get up and move on!"

Ask yourself, what makes you qualified to say this?  Are you the person that hurt them?  Step back, you have no right to say anything.  Are you a friend that's just now shown up to "show tough love" after having known them for all of a few months?  Step back, you're only making yourself look like a cold, unfeeling, impatient jerk.  Are you a close friend or family member that's been helping for months and hasn't seen any improvement?  You may be qualified to think this, but be gentle.  Tough love isn't always the answer.  You can do irreversible harm and set this person's recovery back quite a bit if you try to force them to get better on your time rather than theirs.  It takes, on average, a person 1-5 years to recover from mental or emotional traumas such as divorce and the like.  If you, as a "friend" are over it in a few months, and sick of their whining, good for you!  You're not a friend at all, you're a selfish jerk.

"But I just don't have time or patience to do all this for that long!  I want to be their friend, but I get tired, too!"

That's perfectly fine!  Nobody is asking you to be their savior for the entire duration of their recovery.  If they continuously go to you for help and you're just tired, call in reinforcements!  Talk to their other close friends, set up a list, talk to their church, give them names of trusted therapists, something to give yourself a break without leaving them high and dry.  They have trusted you with their broken, grieving heart.  Even if you didn't ask for it, try to be human and treat it with care, even if that means passing it to someone else carefully.  Demanding it heal so you can be rid of it is only going to hurt things.

So how can you help?  There are so many things not to say, what can you say?  Much like the article says, don't offer advice.  Just don't.  Unless they specifically ask, in which case a response like "I've never experienced what you're going through, I don't know how I would handle it.  I admire you for getting this far this gracefully, I don't know if I would." is fine.  It's likely that they're not even asking for real advice (after all, who would ask for real life advice on such a huge matter from someone who's never been there?) what they're actually looking for is validation.  Validation that they're handling it as well as they can, they're not a disgusting mess of a person, they'll survive and they have life rafts around them if they need it.  So what can you do?  Show them the life rafts.  Take their mind off their brokenness.  Do a chore for them, make a meal for them, take them to get their hair or nails done, babysit their kids, take them to a movie, whatever takes their mind off their problem.  Do not, under any circumstances remind them how great your life is compared to theirs.  Don't invite a recently divorced person to a nice family dinner with you and your husband.  Don't tell them "well my husband has never done that to me, but..."   Don't tell them how their situation makes you feel.  Don't remind them of what they don't have, remind them of what they do have- friends.   And most importantly, don't wait for them to ask you for help.  Grieving people often don't want to inconvenience others because it makes them feel like more of a burden than they already are by being a non-functioning human.  Tell them you're sorry.  Tell them they're handling it well.  Hug them.  Cry with them.  Listen to them scream that so-and-so is a stupid, fat, ugly, manipulative loser.  Let them get all their anger out in a safe way.  Even if you don't agree, let them vent so they don't explode.  Be a safe place for them to be an unhinged, mascara-running, babbling, incoherent, guzzling-ice-cream-by-the-gallon, un-pretty, imperfect person, without worrying about being judged.  And perhaps the hardest thing to remember, and most difficult thing to understand, is that sometimes, they're the only ones who can insult the other party.  Remember, if they're mad at a friend, a family member or a spouse, and you join in on the insults, what happens when they forgive the other person?  Is what you said going to make them feel judged for taking them back?  Is what you say going to make them think you don't trust their family/friend/SO?  Is what you said going to cause irreparable harm to your relationship when the other person is invited back into the fold?  Keep this in mind, though admittedly it is a very delicate balance.

Your help may not show in their eyes, they might forget to thank you, they might not even eat the meal you gave them, but that's not important.  What's important is that you show them you care.  You're there if they need it.  You are a flotation device if they start to drown.  Remember, you are appreciated, more than you know, even if they don't say it.

The last thing I'll say is this: like I stated above, it takes about 1-5 years for a person to heal from a single emotionally traumatizing event. That means that eve if they start acting normal again a few months down the road, they're still healing. Just like a broken bone needs to be eased back into use gently, so does a broken heart. They may have periods of regression. They may have plateaus. They may seem to recover quickly, only to fall back to square one again. Don't forget about them as soon as they appear normal again. Ask about them. Honestly show your concern. Do a random act of kindness for them so show you still care about them, even if they aren't in meltdown mode. For all you know their normal appearance is just them having learned to disguise the pain, not them actually healing. Even if they are back to 100%, a kind deed to show you care never hurt :)

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