Your responses to my last blog, 10 things people say to people in crisis, have brought additional important ideas to the forefront. I was compelled to share them in this addendum post. The variety of your responses further shows how people cope with crisis in unique ways, individual to each person and situation. As an example, one responder was in complete agreement with a statement in the list of 10 that the next responder completely disagreed with. Both had coped with life-changing challenges, buoyed by completely opposing ideas. Both are here to tell the story. Each has a unique recipe for what helps. Each has what she needs.
So, more to think about:
Making comparisons with other experiences. One common occurrence, when someone shares a story of crisis, is when the listener goes quickly into “me too” or “I know someone…” mode. You pour your heart out to someone, for example, and next thing you know, your confidant has moved on to a detailed description of a crisis – theirs or a story of someone they know – that they feel is similar to yours. The intent may be to help people feel less alone in their suffering, and sometimes it works. However, other times this can make the person in crisis feel diminished, one-upped, superseded. Perhaps, if the other story is more extreme, you may even feel less entitled to unhappiness than the other sufferer, a runner-up in the contest for Most Pain. That can lead to a sense that you should “buck up” because other people have it worse. Sometimes such a story can inspire, but other times it can produce feelings of guilt or frustration.
I feel confident in saying that people on the Most Pain award stand are not having fun there and would do anything to step down. But there is something about suffering that can be enticing. When you were young did you ever wish to have braces or glasses or crutches like a friend, perhaps because they seemed to be getting so much attention? Maybe a sibling stayed home sick from school and you wanted to be sick so that you could stay home too. This has happened with my children many times. But when my previously-well child does come down with the bug, and stays home throwing up, each time that child has admitted, “I want to take back the wish to be sick.” The Most Pain award is not all it’s cracked up to be.
So when you find yourself sharing a similar story with someone who has confided in you, stay focused on what could fulfill a need for the person in front of you. Is there a coping strategy from the story used that you want to recommend? If you are talking about someone you know, do you think the two people would benefit from connecting with each other? Tune in to the reaction of the person in crisis. Ask questions. Stay present.
Assuring someone of the presence of a deceased loved one. When a person has experienced profound loss, wishing that the loved one could be present can happen at all different times, in all different situations, expectedly and unexpectedly. Wishing in vain that a parent you’ve lost could know a grandchild, a spouse you’ve lost could share a holiday, a child you’ve lost could grow into an adult – these and other wishes like them are fraught with intense emotion. In an effort to provide comfort, sometimes a friend will reassure the bereaved that there is presence and awareness: “He sees everything.” “She is here with you.” For some, the idea brings peace and solace. But for others, the idea pales so in comparison to having the person alive and physically present that it can highlight the person’s absence in an excruciating way. Furthermore, it makes an assumption about what the bereaved person believes that may or may not be accurate.
Letting the person in crisis take the lead on this idea makes the most sense to me. If that person expresses a belief that their loved one is present in some way, that lets you know that this belief helps them. If you don’t know, perhaps just ask what the person believes. Or if you have a strong opinion about the presence of the loved one, introduce the idea carefully and pay attention to how it is received. A friend of mine approached me a couple of months after my brother died and asked if she could tell me about a dream in which he spoke to her about me. When I said I wanted to hear, she recounted it directly, without adding any layers of opinion. Her simple retelling of the dream was a gift, and the message is something I hold close, even though I don’t yet really know what to make of it.
I’ll close with an important idea from my cousin via a beloved professor of hers from college. This professor defined communication as “people sharing meaning.” My cousin wisely recommended that a person in crisis make the effort to find the meaning under a speaker’s words, because often the speaker struggles to find the best words to express love, care, and sorrow. I agree wholeheartedly. Even as I advocate that the speaker try as hard as possible to find the right words, the receiver also needs to try to discern the meaning. With effort from both sides, there can be a connection, a middle place where what is expressed matches up with what is needed. That middle place is where sharing meaning happens, bringing grace and a profound sense of comfort. It’s where you feel understood, accepted, and loved, no matter what you are feeling. Cherish the moments you spend there, and the people with whom you spend them.