Spending time with some one who is going through a life crisis (of any kind) can be challenging. It is uncomfortable to know what to say and how to say it. I remember when we had our house fire, almost five years ago, our pastor made an announcement at our weekly fellowship dinner regarding what had happened and told everyone that while we needed their support and prayers, we also needed normalcy. We needed a place that was safe for us to be wherever/however/whoever/whatever we were that day.
I remember another time, when Caleb was only a baby, when we were spending a lot of time in hospitals and emergency rooms trying to decipher his never ending health struggles. There was one month we spent 4 consecutive Fridays in the hospital or emergency room. The emergency room nurses station had a note to patients about how it was good for their care that the nurses were smiling and laughing at the nurses station. That this wasn't a sign that they were not taking complaints and concerns seriously, rather a real part of their job as they too coped with transitioning between urgent situations, people in pain, and helping care for multiple patients.
Normalcy, smiling, and laughter are important even when nothing feels normal and smiling and laughter seem impossible.
Knowing what and when these things are wanted/needed, however, can be difficult. Here are a few things I have observed and learned that might help you if (when) you spend time with someone that is hurting.
1. Know that we know it is uncomfortable for you. Our life is awkward and uncomfortable right now and if you are willing to reach out past that uncomfortable feeling to spend time with us, share a kind word, or even a laugh, that helps us reach past our own uncomfortable feelings. We know this affects all of our friends and families and we even feel a burden for the pain our situation causes in your life. Reaching past your uncomfortable feelings helps us to do the same.
2. Take your cues from us whenever possible. Sometimes we simply don't want to talk and sometimes we can't help but talk. We also don't always know what kind of day we will be having until we are there. Things we thought might be easy turn out to be hard, and visa versa. Wanting to talk all the time is not a sign that we are obsessing over the negative and not wanting to talk is not a sign we are ignoring the situation. In either case, watch for clues and if you can't tell don't be afraid to ask. I would rather someone have the courage to ask than ignore us out of fear of being wrong about what we needed that day.
3. Being there matters. Sitting next to us (even without talking). Stopping by for an unexpected visit. Calling (it's much easier to answer the phone than to reach out and call you). Sending a note or card. A hug when words don't make sense. These things all tell us that you are feeling our pain and that gives us strength, especially on the hard days. Not only in the initial crisis, when the story/news is new, but in the weeks, months, and even years that follow.
4. Be thoughtful in what you decide to share. We already have a lot of information coming from a lot of places. Most of the time more information is not particularly helpful. If you have something particular you really believe would be beneficial, maybe summarize and ask if we would like more information without giving us the details. Chances are someone else has already shared the information or there is a good reason (medically or otherwise) that the information you found may or may not be helpful. Let us decide and don't be offended if we decide to pass. The same goes for sharing our situation with others. By all means, share that we are going through a tough time but stay away from sharing specific medical advice. We may not be sharing some details publicly or we may want to wait until we know more to share a particular piece of information. Let us decide the details that are being shared with other people.
5. Be specific in offers of help. General comments of "We'd really love to help, just let us know what we can do." can actually add stress. By the time I realize I could have used help for something, my opportunity to call or reach out has usually already passed. If you have something specific you would like to do either do it, or if in doubt, ask first. If it is something we don't need, we will tell you.
6. Along the same lines, don't be insulted if we say no to help. Maybe now is not the right time. Maybe our fridge and freezer are overflowing with food right now. Maybe the kids aren't ready for a visit with someone they don't know particularly well. It is not personal. We are just trying to do the best we can with a bad situation.
7. Don't compare situations. Hard is hard. For me, I don't like when people downplay their own pain or tough situation by comparing to my situation and assuming mine is worse. Just because I have been through or am going through a tough situation doesn't mean I want you to feel like your situation wasn't hard too. Along the same lines, know that rarely are two situations the *same* and if we limit ourselves to only supporting and encouraging those people who have been through the *same* thing we build walls between each other that prevent us from forming supportive communities. Yes, sometimes it is important for us to speak with others who have been in similar situations, but just because we haven't been through the same tough time doesn't mean you can't be a support to me. Maybe we can be a support to each other.
8. Finally, whatever you do, do not ignore the situation. There is a fine line between pushing past your own uncomfortableness, offering normalcy, and pretending something doesn't exist. Don't let your loved-one's painful situation become an elephant in the room. It is already an elephant in their heart and if it starts to consistently feel like an elephant in a particular setting or relationship, eventually your friend or loved one may stop showing up.
No one wants to endure a challenging situation.
No one wants their friends or loved ones to endure suffering.
Compassionately acknowledging and accepting another person's pain, without dictating their actions or motives will go a long ways towards showing your support and ultimately strengthening your relationship with the other person!