Previously, we discussed what TO do when a friend or family member experiences a family tragedy. How we can help, how we can lighten the load, ease the myriad and intense feelings that accompany such an event.
But for every “do”, there’s also a “don’t”. Here is that list:
- Convert. Remember, when you’re praying, that your friend has other things on her mind right now. Pray in her language if you know it. If you don’t – if you’re Catholic and she’s Jewish, for example – use generic terms. “God, please watch over Suzie’s husband. Thank you. Amen.” Even if you don’t agree with her religion, now is NOT the time to bring it up.
- Make open-ended offers. I can’t tell you the number of times I heard, “if there’s anything I can do, just let me know.” Sounds awfully generous, doesn’t it? That’s the problem. It puts more pressure onto an already over-stressed spouse or family member. If you can’t do anything right now, that’s fine. Just taking the time to show up and say, “I’m so sorry this happened,” is plenty. If you want to do more, that’s fine too. But be specific. Offer something concrete – make meals, walk a dog, whatever. Or don’t offer anything at all. It’s ok. Nobody will think any less of you. Frankly, their attention is focused elsewhere, and honestly, they’ll be thinking, “wow, Joe was so nice to drop by and sit with me for a few minutes,” not, “wow, Joe was here, why didn’t he also offer to cut my grass?”
- Disappear. Major traumas, like the wreck that my family experienced or a disease like cancer, don’t go away in a week or two. The residual is around for years, sometimes forever. Don’t be there for the first month, and then fall off the grid. That isn’t to say that you need to financially support your friend, you don’t have to make three meals a week for the rest of their lives, but be reasonable about your support. Can you offer to give your friend, who may now be a Caregiver, one evening a week ‘off’? Take over her responsibilities for an evening to give her the chance to get out of the house – to a movie, to a book club, even just to go sit at the coffee shop or go for a walk. That alone time can mean so much, especially if you’re not worrying about what needs to be done. Even something as simple as a “how are you guys doing?” phone call, where you really mean, “dump all your worries and frustrations on me, it will lighten your load,” can be so incredibly valuable and appreciated.
- Be afraid or intimidated. So many times, people say, “gee, I didn’t go because I just didn’t know what to say.” And every person I’ve talked with who told me that? Said that they also regretted not being there. Go to your friend. Say, “I don’t know what to say, I don’t know how to act.” If it’s the truth, it’s the truth, and I can assure that she won’t think one bit less of you for doing it. In fact, she’ll be thankful that you’re there.
- Judge. During the course of your discussions with your friend, she may say things that shock you. She may be angry, feel guilty, or have other thoughts that people may label as “forbidden” or “inappropriate.” Honestly, in a situation like that, ANY emotion is honest, and most are appropriate. She has every right to be angry – this horrid thing just happened to her family for no good reason, and now she’s got the pressure of dealing with it. If she’s feeling guilty, let the guilt flow out. If it’s bottled up, it becomes toxic. And if she’s truly not at fault, purging the psyche of these feelings will help alleviate them. If the feelings you’re hearing frighten you, suggest that she see the hospital’s counselors. But mostly, she just needs someone to hear her and validate those feelings.
- Minimize the situation. At the same time that Steve’s wreck happened, our region was being visited by lots and lots and LOTS of water. Our rivers were racing past the 100-year flood stage, and eventually would land a bit beyond the 500-year flood stage. While I was sitting in the waiting room of the ICU, with Steve still under heavy sedation and unable to do anything but sleep, someone said to me, “at least you don’t have to worry about the flood. Those people lost their houses and all their stuff!” My thought was that I would trade my house and all my stuff if it meant that I didn’t now have to face the entire nuclear-bomb like devastation that had hit my family. That was just stuff, and stuff simply doesn’t matter. This wreck, I already knew, would have long-term, far-reaching consequences, that we’d be dealing with for years. I know that what that person said was meant in the kindest way, and there was no malice intended. But it wasn’t helpful. My point here is… right at this moment, nothing else matters. This tragedy, which may not be that big in the “grand scheme of things” or “compared to whatever”… it’s the most major thing that’s happening in your friend’s life right now. It is everything, and nothing is more important, or worse, or bigger.
- Idolize. This is a difficult one not only to define, but to explain – particularly without sounding ungrateful. Frankly, it makes me feel ungrateful to think it, let alone write it. But I’ll try to explain. The first thing that many people think when something ghastly happens to someone else is, “Thank you, God, for not visiting that upon me.” Understandable. The second thing is, “my God, how does she do that? I could never do that!” Not true. You could, and would, do that. It’s not superhuman. It’s simply the hand that life has dealt. I can’t tell you how many people said things like, “you’re so amazing,” “you’re so strong,” “you’re my hero.” I didn’t feel amazing or strong, and I certainly didn’t want to be anybody’s hero. It was yet another responsibility heaped on my shoulders, and added the weight of guilt when I had negative feelings about the situation. Now, it’s not so hard to hear, and I’m far more prepared to be gracious, and grateful for the sentiment, and I know how to respond. But then, in the heat of things, I didn’t want to be anyone’s hero. I didn’t even want to be my own.
- Forget to laugh: Really! It’s ok! It’s more than ok, it’s vital. When Steve was laying there, the second day he was in the hospital and still unconscious and walking that unimaginable line between life and death, my cousin in PA used the hospital’s website to “e-mail a patient”. His e-mail started with, “HOLY CRAP DUDE! This is a heck of a way to get me to write to you!..” At the time, my brother and I were, quite literally, camping out in the waiting room of the ICU. Neither I, nor another woman I met there and bonded with had received our Rossi House rooms yet, so it was like a giant sleepover. Well, I started reading that e-mail, and we laughed until we cried. It was therapeutic. It was awesome. It was love. So regardless what people tell you, hospitals can be funny. Some of the treatments they use are bizarre, some of the situations are weird. If you feel like laughing, chances are, you know someone there with the same sick sense of humor as you. Let loose. You’ll know when it’s inappropriate, and even then, sometimes it’s ok. Judge the situation. Trust your intuition.
What all this boils down to is this: be there. Don’t vanish. Think before you speak, but don’t feel bad if you don’t know what to say. Sometimes silence is the most welcome phrase of all. And sometimes a good laugh makes everything better, if only for that one moment in time. When a trauma hits a family, it throws that family into chaos. It’s time for you to stick, in any way that you can. And if you can’t handle it, there is no shame in staying away until the initial blast clears.