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10 things people say to people in crisis. And thoughts about how to handle them.

When a crisis happens – a serious illness, catastrophic injury, end to a relationship, loss of a loved one, financial disaster, or anything else that turns people’s lives upside down – responses come from those surrounding the person or family in crisis. Some people respond with kind words and embraces in person or loving letters and e-mails from afar. Some people bring food. Some set up helping networks to provide day-to-day task assistance. Some back off, unsure of what to do or say. Some support without judgment. Some judge, and even if they help out, their judgmental opinions may infuse their actions.

I’ve compiled a list of things that people say to others in crisis. I offer my thoughts without any judgment on how others experience these phrases. Any given phrase may offer relief, sanity, or peace to one person, but may annoy, sadden, or offend another. A phrase might be upsetting at first but later provide comfort, or the opposite may happen. Figuring out what works for a given person in a given moment takes attention and effort. But isn’t it worth it, if you end up helping a person in the way that serves them best?

In no particular order, here they are.

1. How are you? I’ve heard this question often both during cancer treatment and after losing my brother – almost always followed by something along the lines of “Ugh, I’m so sorry, I shouldn’t even ask that…what a stupid question…it was just automatic…” etc.

This question is tricky. It often comes out of our mouths automatically, and with good intentions. However, some may take offense if they feel it should be obvious how they are. Others, like me, tend to hear “how are you?” as an honest inquiry. And maybe it is, and maybe sometimes it is just a reflex. Either way, unless I’ve gotten the question from someone like the checker at the ShopRite, I’m inclined to respond with complete honesty. So here’s my advice: Ask away, but be prepared for an honest response, which might not be a short answer, or a pretty one.

People in crisis, your response will depend on the situation. With casual relationships or quick exchanges, for example, you might not have the strength to be honest, and just a generic response may do. But if you can and want to let the truth fly, you have every right. Even if the truth is pretty brutal. Or even if it is actually better than anyone would expect.

2. You look great/You look awful. Yes, I’ve heard both of these. You might think that the first is cheering and the second is offensive. But that is not necessarily the case.

Hearing “you look great” can indeed boost you up when you are going through a rough time. It can cheer you in a sort of, “At least I’m maintaining my exterior in the face of this nightmare” sort of way. But it can also feel inauthentic if you feel strongly that you look like you’ve been trampled by a herd of cattle. This state of affairs can make you start to question whether the person is telling the truth, and you may not be in the mood to be lied to.

As for “You look awful,” it can be oddly comforting to sense that someone is being straight with you (I say this because I can’t imagine someone who says “You look awful” would be lying). On the other hand, if you do think you look awful and are unhappy about it, confirmation from a more objective outside source can be disheartening.

To the speaker, I say be careful with this one. If you must comment on appearance, try putting it into context – “You look much better than when I saw you last week” – or framing it in terms of something you can then do about it – “You look upset, can I get you some water/find you a seat/take you home?” Receiver, try not to read too much into either one of these phrases. But if you are offended, consider politely saying so.

3. You must be [exhausted, depressed, relieved, worried, fill in the blank with any adjective]. Maybe the person is, and maybe the person is not. But there is no “must,” either way. Every situation is unique. Helpers, try to avoid this one. Instead, let the person tell you what is happening, or if the conversation warrants it, turn it into a question: “Are you wiped out this morning?” “Is anything worrying you at the moment that I can help with?”

4. You need to [get some sleep, exercise, take medication, join group therapy, fill in the blank with any action]. There are so many actions that may have a positive effect on a person in crisis. However, what said person needs at any moment is best determined by that person. Sometimes, because of lack of knowledge or perhaps a feeling of paralysis, that person has no idea what he or she needs. Even in those moments, it doesn’t automatically follow that suggestions from outside are useful. They can be – but it depends on so many factors.

If you want to help and you have suggestions, take them out of the parental “you need to” zone and put them into a more informational context. “Have you considered Reiki?” “Would you be willing to speak to a psychiatrist?” “Could a white noise machine help you sleep better?” And if you are on the receiving end of the suggestions, you have two jobs: One, listen with an open mind, there are many possibilities you may not have heard of that may have potential for you. And two, after whatever consideration you are able to give to an idea, respond honestly. Willing to try? Great. Doesn’t work for you right now? No problem. Your helpers need to know where you stand so that they can give you the help that suits you best.

5. Things have to get better from here/There’s nowhere to go but up. I cannot count how many times I’ve heard and said these phrases, both to others and to myself, in my lifetime. Sometimes they help me more solidly feel the possibility that better times await me. I’ll admit that these phrases helped me out when I was coming out of the cancer treatment zone. However, I’m wary of them now, given that things actually got worse for me in some ways since my illness, and that I went up but then went much further down than I had even thought possible. I still hear them and say them though, in a qualified way, as in “There SHOULD be nowhere to go but up…however, I make no assumptions.”

6. Everything happens for a reason. Does it? My question is, what would be the reason for my cancer and for my brother’s tragic death? For any crisis that puts a person’s back against the wall? The editorial page of the New York Times recently weighed in on this problematic phrase.

To me, the idea that things happen “for a reason” implies that there is a plan in the background, a cause justified by an effect, a vision of a positive result happening in the future.

Full disclosure: I’ve used this phrase many times, said it to others and repeated it to myself. It has provided calm in the past. Now, for me, it is meaningless. I find no reason that could provide justification for what I’ve had to cope with.

Use this phrase with extreme caution. If you hear the person in crisis use it, and you can tell that it helps them, that may be a green light. Otherwise, consider avoiding it. Focus instead on what good, if any, has come out of the crisis – not in a “that was worth it” sort of way, but rather with the sense of “at the least there is this.”

7. God doesn’t give you anything you cannot handle. This one is a danger zone for me. I have never used it, and no one has used it with me. However, I know that many people have found, and will continue to find, comfort and strength in it. For those people, it carries enormous value.

I have two issues with the phrase. One is the idea that God or any higher power would actively “give” anyone a torturous challenge. “Oh that one, she’s awfully strong, I’ll throw a bunch of stuff at her and she’ll hold up great.” That doesn’t feel right to me. The other problem is that I know several people who were not able to handle the circumstances of their lives, for a multitude of reasons, and they fell apart. What would I say to them? That they failed to live up to God’s expectations? I can’t imagine passing judgment upon them in that way.

Use this phrase only if you have a strong sense that it will be well received.

8. This [cancer, or divorce, or loss, fill in the blank with any crisis] is a blessing/gift. You don’t hear this said about all crises. I would be hard pressed to determine how the sudden and tragic loss of a beloved family member could be a gift or blessing, for example. But it pops up in the context of cancer or other illnesses, a job loss, or a divorce.

I’m a little uncomfortable with the “blessing” or “gift” language because for me it carries a sense, similar to “everything happens for a reason,” that the crisis will be worth going through to get to the resulting gift. And I’m not sure that everyone feels this way about every crisis.

Bottom line for this one: If you are the one in crisis and you do at some point feel that your experience is a blessing, that some worthwhile gift has come from it, you can be the one to let people know your feelings and others can celebrate with you that something good has come from it all. Everyone else, tread lightly with this idea, especially if the person in crisis is struggling and might not be able to see past the next hour, never mind to the vision of a potential gift coming down the line. Consider offering the idea that something good may result, but be understanding if your idea is rejected.

9. Think positive/Count your blessings/Look for the silver lining. Sometimes, this is possible. Sometimes it is not only possible, it really helps. Other times, it is not so possible, or completely impossible.

When someone says one of these phrases to me my reaction depends on how capable I am of shifting my perspective in that moment. If I am able to lean that way, I welcome the encouragement. If I am not, I may feel like a failure for backing down from the silver lining challenge.

I know intellectually that positive thoughts and blessings and silver linings are available to me. But I can’t always reach for them.

Helpers, sensitively choose your moment to introduce one of these phrases. People in crisis, accept with grace. Rise to the challenge if you can, but when you can’t, be honest about it – and try not to judge yourself as wanting.

10. It is what it is. Some people find this phrase depressing or uninspiring. I get that. But for me, it is one of the most useful phrases, and I repeat it to myself all the time. Sometimes I like to go into detail about what “is” at any given moment. “It is what it is. I am sitting in a doctor’s office waiting for a test result. It is cold and clear outside. My children are healthy. I am late paying my credit card bill. My head aches. My car needs no repairs.” And so on. I’ll just list any current status I can think of, as objectively as possible, positive things and challenges both. I try to avoid judging any part of what is. I observe, describe, and work to accept.

If you have a sense that this phrase will help a person in crisis to accept what is happening and find peace, use liberally. Find another approach if you sense that the person needs a more forward-looking perspective.

My friends, weigh in on these. I know that you have experienced crisis of some kind. I want to hear what has worked for you, what hasn’t, what has been unexpectedly helpful, what has worked and then not worked later, anything that you would like to share. Let’s educate one another so that we can help one another in ways that honor who each of us is and what each of us needs. Strength to you.

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