We must embrace pain and burn it as fuel for our journey. ~Kenji Miyazawa In the spring of 2000, I received a phone call informing me that my husband had collapsed at work and been taken to a nearby hospital. By the time I got there, he was being released. They had decided that he was having an asthma attack, so despite the fact that he couldn’t walk, they gave him a nebulizer treatment, saw it didn’t help and sent him home. I helped him out of the wheelchair, into the car and he pretty much held onto me and the wall on the way to our apartment. Within 10 minutes, he came out of the bathroom, collapsed on the floor and said, “call an ambulance.”
Which is where a good wife immediately dashes to the phone and screams, “help – my husband’s dying!” to the dispatcher. But I hesitated for a split second. There was part of me that wanted to say, “stop being a baby. I’ll help you back into the car and we’ll take you back to the hospital.” He had been sick for over a year and no matter how many tests or trips to the doctor we made, no one could find anything wrong with him. And calling an ambulance is kind of a big thing for another round of nothing. But he had never asked me to call an ambulance before, so I quickly but calmly (I don’t do panic) dialed 911. Thank God.
On the way to the hospital he flatlined. He told me later that he awoke to the paramedic, a small Asian man, frantically trying perform CPR while the defibrillator charged. The qxh is a big man and apparently the paramedic was having a hard time. He says he opened his eyes, looked at the paramedic and asked, “why are you hitting me?” The paramedic looked at him in shock for a second and backed up a bit, looking relieved. The next thing he remembers was waking up to a doctor standing at the foot of his bed laughing. “I just need to shake your hand because you have got to be the toughest son of a bitch I’ve ever met.” He had been looking at the file at the foot of the bed which contained test results showing that he had absolutely no b12 in his body and so many blood clots in his lungs that no one ever bothered counting them. I was told it looked on the lung scan as if someone had spilled black pepper over it. The B12 should have rendered him immobile if not dead several years earlier. And you have a 50% chance of dying from one of the sort of pulmonary emboli he had. And he had been at work that day, even though he told me later than he was leaning on walls to move from place to place. His family needed to be taken care of.
When this happened, we’d been living in Minnesota – a notoriously difficult place to make friends – for about a year and a half. The closest family was 400 miles away. I knew from experience that I could handle my younger son who was a little under a year at the time in an emergency room cube. (I was quite experienced with ERs, doctors offices and hospital rooms by this point.) Our oldest son who was just shy of 5 was another issue. There was no way he could handle what could easily be 6-8 hours in a curtained room. I ended up calling a family whose son was in Noah’s preschool class who he’d had playdates with before and asking if they could help. And they did.
When I made it back about 5 hours later, I still didn’t understand how serious my husband’s medical condition was. I didn’t even know that he had flatlined in the ambulance. (Although I had thought is was odd that the person at the desk with all the paperwork I needed to fill out had asked me, “are you scared?” “No. Am I supposed to be?” I answered and she just smiled and pointed to some line that needed my signature.) So when I went to pick Noah up, I thanked the mother and father and explained that he’d had multiple pulmonary embolism but was responding well to the blood thinners. (The husband was a doctor, the wife a former nurse so they had some idea what I was talking about.) And then I went home and did a little research on the internet and let myself panic a bit. It had been a really serious situation. My husband didn’t get released from the hospital for over a week.
Quite a dramatic story, huh? A miracle even. Or it could be that as some would say, “evil doesn’t die!” I kid. It really was a miracle that he survived. But that’s not why I’m sharing this story. The part I want to talk about happened after my husband was finally put in the hands of competent doctors. This is the part of the story which still leaves me completely aghast. Like mouth hanging open, wordless undone sort of aghast. That family that watched Noah while I was at the hospital? I never got even a phone call to ask how we were doing. I mean, I truly appreciate that they watched Noah for me – having him there would have been a nightmare. But they knew full well that we had no real friends or family nearby and that I was alone with two small children. If it had been me, I would have called the next day, brought over a meal and let everyone at the preschool know what was happening so they could do likewise and then called a few days later again. Even if I didn’t like the person one whit. You care for people who are alone, sick, overwhelmed or scared. It’s been almost 13 years since this happened and I still can’t wrap my head around how seemingly decent people could completely ignore a family so obviously in need of care as mine was at that point. I just can’t imagine what would cause someone to behave like that. And I have a really, really good imagination.
Of course, all’s well that ends well. I powered through and my husband recovered and we even made some actual friends. Unfortunately, I have discovered over the years that this family’s response to being confronted with someone going through a particularly hard time is far more common than mine. I suppose this shouldn’t be as surprising as it is. Why shouldn’t a culture determined to avoid any and all suffering treat the suffering as social pariahs? That really is how people feel when they find themselves on the receiving end of this sort of treatment. Think of how often you have heard or read a letter to an advice columnists where someone complains that since the death of a loved one, a divorce, serious illness or accident, no one will have anything to do with them. Their phone calls go unanswered and the only people calling to see how they are doing are their mother and the bill collectors. A charity may be bringing by meals, but not neighbors or friends.
I do know that I am being uncharitable to a good many people who mean well and just don’t know what to do. And we do live in a culture that leaves a lot of people unequipped to help those who are suffering. Normally, I’m the first to credit good intentions. But so much suffering is compounded by what amounts to and feels like large-scale abandonment at a person’s most acute time of need. I think that upsetting the applecart a bit to address this is more than justified.
In addition to all-too-frequently being the person going through a traumatic life event, I have also been the person who have walked alongside more than a few people going through such things. So, based on my experiences as well as a bunch of research I just don’t have time to hunt down tonight, here are my suggestions for how to deal with someone who is going through a hard time.
1. Stay in touch more than you think you need to. Ask someone else for a phone number or email address if you need it. If you normally talk to the person once a month, call at least weekly. If you normally talk weekly, call a couple of times a week. I mean, if they are uninterested and have to ask, “who is this again?” more than once, back up. But it is so much better to be something of a nuisance than to fall back. When a person is in a really dark place, they need people around them and they often don’t have the energy or wherewithal to reach out themselves.
2. If someone starts crying in front of you, touch them. On the shoulder, arm, a pat on the knee or a full hug if you can manage. There seems to be nothing which is guaranteed to trigger a deer-in-the-headlights response like having someone burst into tears in front of you. I think people feel like they shouldn’t do anything to draw attention to another person crying. As if they might forget if you just don’t mention it. But of course, just the opposite is true. People don’t burst into tears in front of people if they can help it. And now they are standing there bawling and if you don’t reach out to connect, they WILL experience it as judgment. Even if it’s the furthest thing from your mind, your silence will be experienced as criticism for losing control. They will feel embarrassed and ashamed. You don’t even have to say anything – just touch. It will let the person know that if nothing else, they are OK with you.
3. Let the person who is struggling be a mess. When someone is going through a traumatic life event, grief and anger can be a bottomless pit, a person may actively wish that they could die, the laundry may pile up a mile high, the person can be confused and so distracted that they do weird things like leave their front door open all night. This is not a sign that the person is in trouble and you need to stage an intervention so they can get help ASAP. Sometimes life is a mess. But given time, people pull through. We’ve been doing that since the beginning of human history. Yes, some people get stuck, but if it’s a major life event, you need to wait many months before suggesting that what’s going on might need to be addressed more formally. If you jump on someone who is undergoing a traumatic event with “concerns” about how they are handling things, that’s like throwing a tree branch on a broken camel’s back. I know it’s hard to watch someone be in so much pain. Just think of what it’s like to go through it and give them time. More time than you think they should need.
4. Whenever you can, let them know they are normal. A traumatic life event can throw life into such disarray that people going through it can lose all sense of normalcy. Schedules get disrupted. Energy levels plummet. Simple tasks can be overwhelming. People can feel pain and anguish and fear in a way that they have not before. They need re-assurances that they have not lost their mind, turned into a terrible person, or whatever nasty thing they are busy telling themselves. It is normal to be a wreck and non-functional and emotionally overwrought sometimes. Unless it’s been going on for months or there are children being neglected or a job’s about to be lost or crimes are being committed, whatever the person is doing, saying or feeling, it’s normal. Stick with that.
5. Be positive. Unless you are dealing with someone with a serious substance dependency problem or untreated mental illness, a person going through a traumatic life experience is well aware of how bad things are. They will often believe the most god-awful things about themselves and the world and how people see them. Don’t say things that prove them right. Keep your negative opinions to yourself. You can take a vulnerable person and put them into a complete tailspin by deciding that now’s the time to suggest “now you can finally get your life together” or “your life is a wreck. How do you ever expect to recover?” or some such. If you have a negative take on their life, assume it’s the same demon which is haunting their every unguarded thought trying to get you to join in the fun. And don’t co-operate.
6. Listen. Follow the lead of the person actually going through. Don’t assume that you can see their life more clearly than they can. Generally you can’t and even if you can, now’s not the time for it. Just listen. Sometimes I would call people while hysterically upset because I just needed to talk myself down. Really, the person I called could have put the phone down and walked away – it probably wouldn’t have mattered. I just need to talk my way through it. Of course, not everyone has diarrhea of the mouth like me. Some people convince themselves that no one wants to listen to their problems or could possibly understand. Of course neither of those are true. Encourage them to talk by asking questions if they are receptive to it. But even if they are saying outrageous, shocking things, let it be. It’s like poison; it needs to get out. No one expects you to fix anything or offer some profound bit of wisdom. If you must speak, things like “I’m so sorry you’re going through this. It doesn’t seem fair.” will work much better than “have you thought about getting some help?” Yes, of course they’ve thought about getting some help. But right now, you can help by listening sympathetically and biting your tongue until it bleeds if need be.
7. Share what’s going on in your life. Often a person going through some major life event ends up talking about their problems a lot. It is a really nice break to have a chance to just chit-chat about your new washer or the argument you’re having with your sister-in-law. Back in college when I was pregnant with my oldest, one of my best friends started dating another guy in our circle and she never said anything about it. I knew it was happening because I have eyes and I’m not an idiot. It made me so uncomfortable that I could hardly stand being around her but I didn’t have the emotional energy to confront her. I know she didn’t say anything because she thought it would be wrong to talk about her love life with someone whose life was such a wreck, but it destroyed the friendship utterly. Don’t think that because what’s going on in your own life isn’t big and dramatic or life-altering it is somehow inappropriate to bring it up. Just the opposite. It is often a welcome respite from dark times.
8. If you really can’t be there to support someone in these softer, hands-on ways, do what you can. My family went through a period where my husband was working out of town and we only saw him every 3 weeks or so. I had 3 kids and another on the way and my husband was trying desperately to find a new job, but nothing was working. One of the women in my bible study who was probably the last person I would have called to talk to went shopping and got food for several easy meals for me and the kids. It was perfect. I come from a family that isn’t always very good with the emotional support, but sometimes someone will send a gift for me or the kids. Or just a card or a note on a facebook wall. Smoke signals and asking people who know the person how they are doing is a bit to long distance to do any good. But there are many things that you can do which don’t require you to hug a crying person or listen to someone wax poetic about how great it would be if their ex got run over by a bus. And they really do make a difference.
One last note of caution. On several occasions, I have been the one to walk with a friend through a major life event like the death of a parent, a child with serious disabilities, crime victim, divorce, etc. If it was not a close relationship before the crisis struck, be prepared that it may not last. Without a history, sometimes the relationship is too unbalanced and the adjustment to a more normal way of relating may not work very well. Or you can become too associated with a painful time and get left behind when the person reaches the point of being ready to move on. Don’t take it personally. You will have done a very great thing in the eyes of heaven. God is close to the brokenhearted. If you put yourself close to the brokenhearted as well, God does not fail to see.
So, there’s my down-n-dirty guide for how to be a friend to someone going through a terrible situation. If anyone has other suggestions to add, I’m all ears. Well, not really of course. If I were all ears, how could I type?