A guest post by Gail at A Flourishing Life
Life is so rich in offering us a vast array of situations and circumstances, some more challenging than others. When you are in the position to comfort a friend in crisis, you have been given a wonderful opportunity to express your love and caring.
For some of us, supporting people going through a difficult time can be confusing or awkward, no matter how much we want to be present for them. Below are some suggestions that might be helpful. Not all of these will apply to every situation, so use them only if they feel appropriate.
- Make contact. When you find out that someone you know is going through a crisis and you want to support them, make contact. Call, email, offer to visit. People in crisis often feel alone and alienated and appreciate when others reach out to them.
- Listen to the story. At the beginning stages of a crisis, everyone needs to tell their story in their own time. Telling the story is one of the cornerstones of psychological treatment for trauma. The job of the friend is to listen. Communicate concern and understanding by repeating the sequence of events and asking for clarification when you need it. You might say any of the following: “Would you like to tell me what happened?” “You must be so angry!” “I’m so sorry to hear this.” “How are you feeling?”
- Be there emotionally. Think of yourself as a vessel filled with love and support that you are offering out. Recognize any feelings that you might have about the situation and try to not have them interfere with your ability to show up for your friend. Keep your personal stories to yourself, along with any judgments or criticisms you might have.
- You probably don’t know how your friend feels. Be careful about saying, “I know how you feel.” When people are reeling from their own feelings, they think that you can’t possibly understand their experience unless you have actually been there.
- Don’t push. People in crisis can feel completely out of control and can benefit from making choices. Rather than insisting on a course of action, offer your friend some options to select from. Even simple ones matter, as in, “Would you like to go now or later?”
- Help make decisions. On the other hand, you might notice that your friend is easily confused and has difficulty making even small decisions. In this case, you might consider stepping in by preparing a plate of food and offering it or saying, “I think we should….now. Let’s do it together.”
- Offer practical help. Suggest tasks you might take on such as making calls or doing errands. Be observant to see what is needed, and ask if you can assist. Especially focus on what children involved may require.
- Bring food. Eating is one of the first things to go in a crisis (along with sleep). Have nourishing food available so that your friend is more likely to continue eating regular meals.
- Know that emotion comes in waves. There are no rules about how people should react to crises. Your friend may feel numb, intensely emotional, or anywhere in between. All reactions are valid and understandable, even laughter. Emotions often appear in waves – they come and go. Be there as a support no matter what your friend is feeling.
- Let your friend cry. Recognize if you are uncomfortable with the level of your friend’s emotions. Take a breath, and fill your vessel with love and support. Try to be with the emotions without stifling them. Your friend will eventually stop crying.
- Be a buddy. I once read a book on breakups that suggested recruiting a “breakup buddy,” a friend who could be called on night and day in those difficult first days. Offer to be a support buddy to your friend, someone who he can call any time.
- Be aware of your triggers. A crisis is an emotional and stressful time for everyone, making it more likely that people will push each other’s buttons. If you feel irritated, take a breath and try not to react. Don’t add fuel to the fire if you can help it.
- Get professional help on board. If your friend is suicidal or highly irrational, don’t hesitate to suggest professional help. Every community has a suicide hotline, and 911 is always available.
- Rally support. If you know other people who might like to support your friend, contact them to let them know what happened.
- You will get through this. A person in crisis may not be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel when the event first happens. Hold your friend’s hand, look her in the eye, and say, “You will get through this,” or, “This too shall pass.” She may not believe you at the time, but it will be helpful to hear.
- Be patient. Your friend may need to tell the story many times or may still be emotional weeks after you would have begun to move on. Respect that everyone’s process is unique. However, if, after giving it plenty of time, you think your friend is stuck in the trauma, you might gently ask, “How do you see yourself getting through this?”
- Encourage basic functioning. In the first few days of a crisis, even the most minimal functioning may seem impossible. Be very gentle in encouraging your friend to take a shower, get dressed, eat regular meals, and take a short walk. If you know of self-care activities your friend enjoys, such as yoga or going to the gym, suggest these as well, being careful not to sound pushy.
- Know that nighttime is often the hardest time for people in crisis. Call in the evening to check in. Communicate empathy regarding how difficult a time it is.
- Don’t support drinking too much or other reckless behavior. Some people may want a few drinks, or more, when going through a difficult time. Your friend will need to find his own way. You can be the voice of wisdom by suggesting moderation.
- Take care of yourself. People can easily become depleted while supporting someone through a crisis. Pay some attention to your own needs so you can be replenished. Take breaks, breathe, and get support for yourself.
- Check in over time. Often, at the beginning of a crisis, many people are available to help and support. Over time, people tend to forget and return to the rhythm of their lives. Keep your friend in the forefront of your mind, and check in in the weeks or months ahead.
Remember that a crisis is a tender time for everyone. If your intention to support is clear, but you don’t get it completely right, be very forgiving of yourself. Showing up with a loving, open heart is by far the best medicine.
How have you helped a friend in crisis? Any suggestions you would add? I’d love to hear about your experiences.