What to do when someone’s in crisis

I really thought I knew how to be helpful when someone was facing something scary. Turns out I know less than I thought I did.

Being the one in a hospital bed is very different than being the worried loved one sitting next to it.

In the last two months since my mom’s diagnosis, I’ve been the recipient of so much love and support, some of it coming from places and people I wasn’t expecting. I have them to thank for these tips.


1) What to say

  • “I’m sorry.”
  • “I believe in you.”
  • “You are strong.”
  • Nothing.

It’s easier to say, “I’m here if you want to talk,” than it is to actually be that person. Most of us want desperately to say something, the right thing, anything that will help our loved ones feel better about their situation.

If you really want to help, do a lot of listening.

And if the person is silent — this is important — that doesn’t mean you need to fill the silence. It means the opposite. Sit there for as long as possible, and let us speak when we are ready.

The fact that we aren’t talking means that we trust you, and don’t feel like we have to take care of you. That is a really good thing.

~~ My friend, writer David Hicks, provided another suggestion. Ask, “What’s it like?” Most people in crisis want to share what’s happening, but don’t want to be a burden on others. This question may open the door.


2) What not to say

  • “You’ll be fine.”
  • “He’s in a better place.”
  • “You must be relieved.”

People often see another’s tragedy from their own point of view.

What do they see? Unbearable discomfort. Their own, because the person in front of them is hurting, grieving, not who they were the last time they saw them. Many freak out by other people’s pain, so much so that they need to say something SO THEY FEEL BETTER (not the person actually in crisis).

This isn’t about you.

In fact, those four words should be what you say…to yourself. Your wish that we’ll be fine or relieved that our loved one isn’t suffering any more is only your wish. Pay attention to how we talk about what’s happening. Repeat our words back to us if you need something to say. Or say nothing.

If you are worried that saying nothing isn’t helpful enough, please know what a difference it makes, how much it has meant to me. You may also want to repeat those four words to yourself again.


3) What to do

  • Show up.
  • Do something without asking.
  • Check in regularly to say hi and don’t expect an answer.

Your first reaction may be to ask, “What can I do? or “What do you need?” and chances are high that unless a specific job has surfaced in the last five minutes your loved one will have no idea what to tell you. They are likely so immersed in what’s happening that thinking about what they need is a luxury of time and energy that they don’t have.

When people asked me, I said, “I wish I knew; I’m sure I could use the help.”

If you really want to help, be prepared to come up with your own answer.

Three examples that blew me away recently:

On the day my mom was admitted into the hospital, I was beyond worried and overwhelmed. I sent texts to a couple close friends as I headed to the emergency room, and within 30 minutes three of them showed up. There were tender hugs, advice when asked for it, and friendly faces when she and I needed them the most.

By the next day I could email more people, and the love kept coming. One colleague left me a voicemail saying she was thinking of me, to not worry about calling her back. She then called again a few days after that and said the same thing. I could feel her support without anything required by me to keep it coming.

Saving the best for last. A close friend from Washington, DC couldn’t show up in person because I was with my family in upstate New York, so later that week there was a knock on the front door of my parents’ house. Two brimming baskets were delivered by the talented local chef Leslie Robinson with Culinary Accommodations — Mason jars filled with homemade, nourishing soup enough to feed an army.┬áSome of the soup is still in the freezer two months later. I couldn’t eat it all!

When I thanked my friend for buying these, she said, “You’re busy taking care of everyone else right now. These soups are to take care of you.”

Every time I heat up a bowl, even now when my mom is home doing well so far with chemotherapy, and life is relatively back to normal, I feel comforted.

I had no idea what I needed. These friends had to figure it out, and I’ll be forever grateful that they did.

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