You know how it is. There’s a friend and s/he’s going through something awful. Maybe it’s a divorce. Maybe it’s the loss of a parent or child. Maybe it’s an extended illness of a family member or close friend. Maybe it’s the loss of a job. Maybe it’s serious financial hardship. Or an injury…
The list of bad things life can throw at you is freaking tough. I was reminded of this (as if I needed reminding) this week with the shootings in Colorado. Life can turn drastically bad when you least expect it.
When it–whatever it is–happens, usually the trajectory of responses follow a fairly predictable path:
1) most everyone sends a comment/email/FB message/tweet/card to express their sorrow over the event
2) almost everyone will say something like, “If there’s anything I can do for you, let me know.”
3) within a few weeks, the number of people who will be sort of keeping up with what’s going on will have diminished to a much smaller number, but that’s expected in a way, because everyone has a life and their own tragedies and twists and turns
4) eventually, one of three things things happen:
a) a small handful of friends/family will still keep track of how you’re doing
b) a lot of people that you thought you were close to have become silent because they started feeling awkward for their extended silence (they’ll suddenly realize they haven’t even asked about the event in a long while and then it feels like, “oh no! I can’t ask now! What if things are a lot worse? What if… things got really horrific and I’m asking at a bad time? What if I made them feel worse because now they have to answer it and relive it? I’ll just wait ’til there’s a better opportunity.”)
c) people forget completely. And there are crickets. Absolute crickets.
We’ve all done it. I’ve done it. I know you’ve done it. And the thing is, I don’t think many of us mean to do it, but it feels so awful when we suddenly realize that we haven’t kept up with someone’s life, we don’t really want to call attention to it, or it feels awful that we don’t even know the status and we don’t want to make things worse. It’s an absolute natural phenomena.
But when you’re on the other side of that phenomena? It sucks. I am not going to play coy with you: it massively sucks.
And the thing is, I honestly believe that most people do not mean for that to happen; they just don’t know what else to do. They think, “Well, I told her to call me if she needed anything, and she didn’t, so she must not need me,” and they honestly don’t realize that that person is so deep in a well of grief, they don’t even know what they need. If what has happened is really really bad, they probably can’t articulate what they need for the first few months of that grief. Even if they say, “I’m fine, thank you, I’ll let you know if I need anything,” they are lying. They may not mean to be lying, and it’s perfectly understandable that you might feel like “well, they should know,” but I am telling you, they are lying. To themselves. To you, too, but mostly to themselves. Because they are trying to keep from falling apart and everything about their life is so fragile, they’re trying to maintain a semblance of control.
Inside, though, they are crumbling.
And they’re having to re-stitch their lives together to form a new reality that includes that thing that happened in such a way that they can face it, sort of, and deal, and move forward, as if they hadn’t fallen apart.
If you haven’t been through that kind of grief and pain, you will. It’s inevitable in this life that we lose someone we love, someone gets hurt, sick, or we get hurt or sick, or something bad happens. Nobody’s immune.
So the real trick is to figure out how to let those people who’ve just been knocked on their asses know that you’re thinking about them, keeping them in mind… without feeling awkward and intruding and without subsuming your busy life (because really, you are busy, that’s just reality).
I have some suggestions. Some gentle guidelines for you. These are only a starting point. I’m hoping you will add to these suggestions in the comments and I’ll compile them all into some sort of free ebook for anyone who might need it. (So if you comment, understand that your comment might be included. Feel free to comment anonymously or under a pseudonym if you want.)
I’ve broken these down into categories. You should not, under any circumstances, look at this list as ALL OF THE THINGS you have to do. No one can do all of these. Pick one or two. Just one or two, but do them consistently, and you will make a big difference. This is rough and needs refining. I’m hoping you’ll help me with that as we go…
BIG THINGS YOU CAN DO
If you’re close friends/family or live nearby, and there’s a horrific tragedy (accident/death/injury), the person in question is probably going to get meals from a local church group / family that will sustain them the first week or two. If you know they are not a member of any type of organization that would do this for them, be the person who organizes a meal-every-other-day (unless it’s a huge family, most people will eat leftovers the second day). Organize it for one month.
If someone else has already seen to the meals, you can:
organize who picks up the dishes when they’re done
clean out the refrigerator after a couple of weeks, getting rid of the stuff they didn’t like/eat/need and helping them handle the incoming stuff
Call them up when you’re going to the store and offer to pick up whatever they need. Almost everyone can use extra toilet paper/paper towels/paper plates/shampoo/soap/dish-washing liquid/bread/milk. You may not have enough extra cash on hand to do many of these items, and most people are not going to list these, if at all, but occasionally, especially if someone is sick and housebound or has small children, this can be a godsend. IF YOU CANNOT PAY and then receive money from them when you deliver, offer to come by and pick up their form of payment and do the shopping for them.
Help them address thank you cards (especially after a funeral) and offer to get them in the mail for them. Be the person who checks back in on them a couple of weeks afterward and then a couple of weeks after that. If you’re really close to them, and a loved one died, go help them pack up stuff, when they’re ready. They may not be ready for weeks/months, but make the offer and repeat it later when it seems like they may be getting to that point.
If there is paperwork to find/file/make phone calls about, take over some of that task. (Now, I am talking mostly family here–obviously, you can’t walk into a friend’s house and just take over… but you could help them by babysitting, for example, so that they have the time to do it, or taking over another more mundane task to free them up to do what’s needed.)
SMALL THINGS YOU CAN DO
After the immediate shock of whatever’s happened has settled in, though, come the more important small gestures that bring long term comfort. Most of us are going to fall into this category with friends/extended family. We can’t be there every day, we can’t go in and out of the other person’s house, and maybe we don’t quite know them well enough to do some of those big things–and they would feel like we were being pushy, because we didn’t know them well enough… that’s fair. However, there are small things that will mean the world to them.
If, for example, you know they have just had someone die and they’re going to have to address thank you cards, send a set of stamps so they don’t have to hunt them down/make a special trip.
Send a card… a couple of weeks after everyone else does. Just a quick note that lets them know you were thinking of them. It can be funny, or a special quick anecdote or something about them (not who they’re grieving) that made you smile, made you miss them. They need to not feel invisible. They need to not feel swallowed up by the event, whatever it was.
Mark a date on your calendar to send a card again, later. Note their birthday, if you have access to it, and if it’s in the next few months, send a card for that. Something funny that says, “Hey, I’m glad you’re in my life.”
Call or write to ask them how they’re doing. Note–you don’t have to ask how the person who is ill is doing if you (a) aren’t sure if that person is alive and don’t want to stir up pain or (b) you can’t remember the status/name of the ill person because you didn’t really know them, but you care for the friend. All you have to do is ask them how they’re doing. They’ll fill you in. They may keep it brief (it’s still painful, but they are glad you care) or they may babble (they have all this pent-up emotion and they need an outlet).
They are rarely going to think, “Gosh, that person called/wrote to me just to stir up my pain.” That really doesn’t happen.
If you’re on email/fb/twitter/pinterest with them, send a joke you know they’ll enjoy. Just every once-in-a-while to let them know you’re thinking of them.
Play a long-running game online. (grin) (I have a friend who has played Words With Friends with me for several months now. We take turns creaming each other–it’s pretty evenly matched, and I will tell you this: after every single play I feel like she’s thought of me that day. It’s not an email, it’s not any actual exchange of emotion, but I know she’s thinking of me as we match wits. Plus, it’s a nice distraction.)
Here’s the thing: if you’re a friend, make a note of the event on the calendar and look outward for the next year at the awful intervals: the holidays, the anniversaries, just the months ticking by, and set a reminder for one or two of those, or more if you’re so inclined, to just send that person a note so they know they’re not forgotten. Pick up the phone, if you’re phone friends. Do not worry that they might be busy or in the middle of caring for someone else. If they are, they won’t answer–they’ll call back. I have several friends who are regular callers who let me vent… and babble… and sometimes, really really rant at the world/problem/life. It helps. Even when they’ve heard it sixteen times, it helps. And then there are times I just cannot talk, cannot have extended conversations, or just really don’t want to get too into what’s going on because I need a breather, and I know that they know that if I don’t call right back, it’s just not a great time. I’ll call later, and they’re okay with that, and they’ve told me so. It helps.
If you’re crafty, there are all sorts of possibilities, if you know the people well enough–everything from giving them a copy of a photo you have of them for their own keepsake to a scrapbook of good memories you and maybe your family/friends have of the person/family who’ve been hit by the event… to… well, I’m sure there are more.
Most of all, if you see a problem and you can solve it, let them know. Let them have some choice–some control over their life in the midst of the chaos–but let them know of a solution, if you’ve got it. (And I don’t mean simply telling them what you think they ought to do–I mean actually volunteering to solve whatever the problem is, if you can solve it. If you can’t solve it and all you’re doing is announcing the problem, odds are they already know and you’re not helping. Keep those to yourself.)
Okay, it’s late as I write this, and I am sure there are a dozen more. Which ones resonate with you? What else can you suggest for people to do? What has someone done while you were grieving/going through a rough time that meant the world to you? I have one particular friend who has called me at least once or twice a week since my brother was diagnosed, and sometimes, I haven’t felt much like talking, but others, I have babbled and raged against the world. I have other friends who’ve constantly checked on me, and I’ve been surprised who those people turned out to be, honestly. I’ve had some who’ve sent me funnies that have really brightened my day.