How do I help someone during a traumatic time?

People often wonder how they can help when someone close to them is going through a tough time, whether due to illness or a great loss (like the death of a loved one or their employment). 

The fact is that there is no textbook answer to this question. But there are ways of supporting a friend, family member or colleague that can prove to be of great value. 

DARE TO LEAN IN        

This simply means to not avoid: the topic, the person, the issue at hand. But wisdom is required. Choose your time. Wait for the gap. Arrange a coffee. You will find a way to raise the topic. Express your concern with a phrase like: ‘I’ve been wondering how you are after you heard the news.’ Trust your gut, the words will come. This opens up the possibility for a conversation. 

Also, ‘leaning in’ doesn’t mean that you should have a conversation filled with wisdom or advice. It just means that you are not withdrawing. And it indicates your willingness to listen.

MINISTER THROUGH YOUR PRESENCE

You have been given a very powerful way of serving your fellow human beings: your presence. By just being there, we can mean a great deal to someone else. 

But what does it mean to ‘be there’? It starts by indicating that you are present, by making a phone call, sending a text message, or a voice note. This is saying: ‘I may not know what you’re going through, but I can walk alongside you.’ Show up. Make time to listen. View your presence as God’s way of comforting another. Use as few words as possible. 

Your body – with its limbs and emotions and ability to understand – is a very powerful way of showing someone you care, and that they are not alone. 

ACKNOWLEDGE 

Sometimes we are tempted to offer ‘perspective’ to someone in crisis. To someone who’s been diagnosed with cancer we may say: ‘Just think how fortunate we are that we have access to treatment.’ When we say this, we are not really acknowledging their pain. Or to someone who’s lost a job we may respond with: ‘At least you have a degree and a lot of experience.’ 

Everyone’s pain is valid. The best we can offer one another is to acknowledge that the situation is tough. We do this by a) not comparing stories and b) by verbal expressions like ‘I can understand that you find this very hard.’ When we acknowledge, we affirm an experience and the person’s emotions. We definitely don’t know exactly what they’re going through, but we can acknowledge their pain. 

I DO NOT KNOW WHAT YOU’RE GOING THROUGH

Say you have lost a parent. Now it’s your colleague’s turn. In all kindness, you respond to her loss by saying: ‘I know exactly what you’re going through.’ That is not the case. Your story is not her story. Your mom was not her mom. She did not have what you had. Life is more complicated than a simple comparison. 

We cannot really walk in another’s shoes. We can surely try, but we will never be able to do it. 

Perhaps the best we can do is to not avoid, to be present (and stay present), to acknowledge and to leave room for the other person’s story and experience. 

RS

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