When Crisis Hits Say This, Not That

A wise man (John Lennon) once said, “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.” Ain’t it the truth.

A friend called the other day to get my take on how to respond to some upsetting, scary news. A young woman who grew up with her kids, became close to the whole family, and was practically one of them was just diagnosed with a rare tumor and is about to begin a course of treatment that will be horribly tough on her and everyone who loves her.

What my friend wanted to know was how to be helpful. Not so much in terms of what to do — she’s an ace at bringing meals and showing up to do errands you didn’t even know you needed done — her questions were about what to say and what NOT to say to bring them some comfort.

She asked because she knows I’m something of a reluctant expert on the subject.

When my first-born was 2 1/2 he was diagnosed with neuroblastoma, an aggressive childhood cancer that took our lives and turned them upside down; took our guts and rearranged them on the outside of our bodies.

On an ordinary day, in a heart-stopping instant, time is divided into before and after. The planet as you know it looks one way one minute, and is unrecognizable the next.

And that transformation doesn’t just affect you and your family, it happens to all your friends, neighbors, teachers, colleagues and every single person who touches your world. They all experience a mirror image of what you’re going through, and are desperate to do anything they can to ease your pain. But they don’t know how. Don’t have a clue. How could they? They feel confused and frightened.

Sometimes they do nothing. They avoid you and avoid speaking of IT … not because they don’t care, or because they think they might ‘catch’ your misfortune, but because they’re so afraid of doing or saying the wrong thing.

While there is no wrong thing — believe me, anything you might say isn’t nearly as awful as the stuff they’re already thinking, and nothing will make their shattered world any more shattered, there are some incredible gifts that can bring moments of joy and peace and help them navigate a road they never in their darkest moments thought they’d be traveling.

So for all you loving friends and supporters out there, this is my experience of what helped and what didn’t. And for those who may be going through an awful time, let your people know what works for you, and what doesn’t.

DO …

… Call and keep calling. Let them know you’re there. No big deal, no long speeches, no heavy message, just say hi. If they don’t want to talk they won’t answer the phone, but they’ll be glad you showed up. If you can include a tidbit of neighborhood news or silly celeb gossip, all the better.

… Watch your tone. It’s almost automatic when we talk to someone who’s in crisis, whether it’s a health issue, unemployment, or a divorce, to use that worried, pitying, “I’m so sorry” voice. Frankly, it’s depressing. Much better to use your upbeat voice, even when talking about how the situation sucks.

… Be straight about what you know. Don’t be afraid to use the ‘C’ word, or whatever accurately describes it. If you don’t know, it’s okay to ask. Ask, but don’t pry. “What do the doctors say?” is better than “What’s the survival rate?” It leaves room to tell as much or as little as they’d like. Acknowledge the unfairness of it all and leave room for venting (them, not you) but don’t push if they decline.

… Be your normal self. If you run into your friend in the supermarket, comment on the super-size package of Oreos in her cart if that’s what you’d have done before. Laughter and jokes are unbelievably helpful. Being “appropriate” (whatever that means in crisis-land) is way overrated.

… Focus on the kids. When a sibling or parent in the family is ill, other kids can feel left out and forgotten, and parents feel awful about it. Give the little guys some added attention. Offer an outing to the park, a movie, or laser tag to reassure them that life as they know it goes on and it’s still okay to have fun.

… Avoid drama. They’re getting through this one day at a time by biting off manageable pieces. Having the enormity of the picture pointed out, even if you’re admiring how beautifully they’re handling it, is not helpful.

… Open your heart, whatever that means to you. A hand made card telling them how you feel (see ‘Avoid drama’ above), a dozen of your incomparable oatmeal cookies, your cherished DVD of The Hangover, whatever.

DON’T …

The one exception to there’s no wrong thing to say is: “I don’t know how you’re getting through this. I don’t think I could do it.” The only conceivable answer is: “Unfortunately, I wasn’t given a choice. No one asked if I wanted my child to get cancer. I have to get through it, and you would too.” They know what you meant (you’re so strong and I’d never be as strong as you), but it reminds them how glad you are that you’re not them. They already know that.

… Always focus on the crisis. Life goes on. Laundry gets done, the dog is walked, movies are watched, new clothes are bought. All the stuff you used to talk about is still happening, it’s the landscape that’s changed. Sometimes it’s comforting to ignore the forest and get lost in the trees.

… Make them comfort you. This is a big one. If you get teary and emotional, they’re naturally going to fall into the caretaker role and try to be reassuring. This adds insult to injury, and does nothing but add to their burden, even if you think you’re showing how much you care. Not okay.

… Drop away after the initial crisis is over. They’re in it for the long haul, and need the people in their life to hang in there all the way. Keep checking in. Let them know you’re on board.

… Expect the usual social niceties and Miss Manners rules. If you drop off a lasagna and don’t get a thank-you note, let it slide. In crisis-land some things fall through the cracks.

As you can see, the Dos are longer than the Don’ts, and rightly so. The most important Do? Just be there.

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Rachel Zahn, MD is a pediatrician turned health writer who had three kids during medical school and pediatric training—crazy, huh?


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