So many times in my life when someone I loved was in crisis, I asked myself, the person, and anyone else who would listen: What can I do to help? Then when I had cancer, and again now in my current state of shock over the sudden loss of my brother, the question has come back my way, from so many caring people around me: What can I do? How can I help you? I don’t know what you need but if you think of it, please tell me…
At the moment, I’ve distilled the answer down to this recipe: Presence and patience, hold the judgment.
Presence, because I need you there. But what “there” means is all over the map. I wish I could tell you definitively what it means myself, but it changes daily, even hourly, without warning, and I am not in control of it. Often it simply means you remind me that you exist in the world and are keeping me in your thoughts, no physical presence required. So much of the work of grieving seems to happen in solitude, at least for me, that often the feeling of your presence in my moments alone is not only enough but is exactly right. Probably this way of being present is what I need more than any other right now, different from my cancer treatment when I wanted people physically present more often, as long as I was not feeling too ill.
Sometimes the presence that helps is a conversation over phone or text. Sometimes it is taking care of a task that I just can’t get to (appreciation of, and recommendation of, the amazing site https://www.lotsahelpinghands.com/ for making that happen easily). And occasionally it means physically being there, but not as often as I expected. I never know whether company is going to be helpful or suddenly not at all what I can handle, so I hesitate to make plans ahead of time. This is so different from my habitual way of being. I have had to throw out long-held assumptions about myself in the face of everything that has happened, and deliberately tune in to emotions and physical cues to try to determine what is going on. In many ways I don’t have a good grasp of who I am right now, because so much of what I’ve known to be true about myself doesn’t seem true anymore, at least for the moment. When a chunk of the bedrock of your life is torn off, all sorts of other things anchored to that bedrock fall away too, and daily I discover new things that are missing.
Patience, because I don’t know how long this is going to go on. I am not sure what about how I feel and live will return to a state that I recognize from past experience, and what won’t. Evidence from my conversations with other veterans of loss, illness, or other personal crises indicates that pretty much anything is possible. Some say things improved after the first year. Some say they were in a fog for five years or even more. Some speak of experiencing a spiral path, improving year by year but with spikes of intensity around holidays or other significant dates. Some aspects of life stayed intact, some changed for a while, some changed indefinitely. Every situation is unique, stemming from individual sets of circumstances.
At the least, these explorations and conversations have helped me begin to let go of judgments surrounding what I should be feeling and doing at any point in this process. There is no “should,” there is just “is.” And one of your greatest gifts to me or to anyone in crisis is to be patient, having no expectations of a timeline, and to communicate that your presence and support will hold steady.
Hold the judgment, because judgment wrecks this recipe for help. It takes energy away from presence and drains patience. And I am not saying this because I have felt judgments from anyone I know around how I’ve managed so far – I haven’t, even if you have had them. But it’s important to say in general, because judgments can lurk beneath our most loving intentions.
I recall a situation that happened when I was mid-way through chemo, finished with adriamycin/cytoxan and having begun my Taxol regimen. At that time I found that if I got out for a walk a few times a week it made a real difference for me, especially if I was on a forest trail. Anyway, a friend of mine who had been through cancer told me about someone she knew, also in treatment at that time, who just could not get out of the house. Apparently this woman spent most of her days in bed with the shades drawn, and my friend was worried about her. I promptly became worried about her too, and tried to contact her so that I could encourage her to get out and get some fresh air, but I never heard back. I was anxious about the amount of time passing before she was able to get outside. I judged her coping choice as harmful to her and to her healing.
Funny, I didn’t see it as judgment at the time. I saw it as caring and helpful. So often our judgments do not seem negative to us. But, if we look at them more carefully, might we acknowledge the possibility that we are not respecting someone else’s autonomy? If people in crisis work to understand their instincts and needs, explore options comprehensively, and take action in the way that they can and must, can we set our judgments aside in favor of trust? It is possible, of course, that spending six weeks under the bedcovers brought the greatest possible peace and healing to this patient. I don’t know for sure, because I never was able to connect with her. But I have to stay open to the possibility that she got exactly what she needed.
You know a lot of people, and chances are one or more are in crisis. This is the time to be present – which can include providing information and ideas you think will support clear-headed decisions (i.e., telling a housebound cancer patient about the research showing how walks in the woods boost white blood cell counts). This is the time to be patient – which means after you have laid your thoughts out, leaving people to choose which way to go (i.e., being accepting when this patient considers the options and chooses a dark room over a walk in the woods).
Assure people in crisis that you are within arm’s reach no matter the path they travel. As time goes by, assure them again. Understand that each individual is navigating totally unique, previously uncharted territory. Consider that your presence and patience, in whatever shape they take, even when you feel like you are doing nothing at all, may be exactly what someone needs.