Effective methods to help a loved one through crisis, and not lose yourself in the process.
Your family member, friend, or loved one is in crisis. Something has happened to them, a life-altering accident, illness or medical condition, or some tragic loss has befallen them, and you want to be there for them. My intention behind this Blog Post is to demonstrate how to show up effectively, when your loved one has suffered a tragedy, or is in physical or emotional crisis.
When I lived with my Dad in 2006, he was diagnosed with a very challenging respiratory condition. That quickly transformed into a back problem. After two back surgeries in early 2007, he was diagnosed with blood cancer. I already had an excellent support system, and a host of effective tools to help me help my Dad in his battle with cancer. But on one bright, beautiful August day, I came home from work to find my Dad’s body. In that moment, my whole world shattered, and I became a person unable to function and in desperate need of support.
What follows are the tools I used to walk with my Dad through his battle with cancer, and the tools used by those closest to me, to walk me through the enormity of my grief, and helped me find my way back to some quality of normalcy.
Self-Care is ALWAYS Priority #1.
“Take rest. A field that has rested gives a beautiful crop.” ~ Ovid
Always attend to your own needs first.
Are you rested? Have you eaten? Are you hydrated? Have you exercised? Have you connected with your own Support Network recently? Basic self-care is the first step to being in your best ‘self.’
Be in your best self, to help your loved one find their way back to their best self.
Accept and take ownership of what belongs to you.
Time, Attention, and Emotion.
When caring for a loved one going through a life-challenge, time and attention are the two resources you will be using most. And you will be having your own emotional process about your loved one’s predicament, and how it is affecting your relationship.
Be clear with yourself, and accept what you are able and willing to do with your time and attention, and what you are not. Work within your abilities and your limitations to show up in the best way you can, whatever your best is, on that day, in that moment.
Practice Acceptance, and take ownership of your Inner-Space.
Accept that your situation is changing, as well as your priorities. Accept that you are having your own emotional process about what is happening to your loved one. Depending on the severity of their situation, the relationship dynamics may be changing.
If your loved one is part of your Support Network, where they may once have been a ‘rock,’ solid and stable, they may now be vulnerable, scared, or uncertain. Where before you could depend on them to be there for you, they may now be depending on you. Accept the situation and accept whatever feelings you have about the situation.
When your loved one is in crisis, they will probably be unable to account for your needs, and they shouldn’t have to. Right now, their job is to get through their crisis. Your job is to show up, in the most resourceful way possible.
“Compassion-Fatigue” is very real. Caring for someone in crisis can itself be taxing, especially over a period of days, weeks, or months. Take time away from the situation to attend to your own personal physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual needs.
Be clear about and communicate your boundaries.
Be clear with yourself and others about how you intend to use your time, and other resources. “I can drive you to the doctor on this day, at this time, but then I have to go to work.” “I can watch your kids on this day, but not that day.” Always be clear with yourself and others about what you are available for and not.
Have your own Support Network in place.
When caring for a loved one in crisis, you will have your own mental-emotional process, about their situation, and about the changes in your relationship. Your loved one is in a Compromised State, and it is not appropriate for you to look to them to caretake your needs or your feelings. Have other people in place who you can call upon for support to help you process your own feelings. They will help you find clarity and comfort as you support your loved one in crisis.
Don’t project your own model of reality.
“What it means to be a ‘safe-space’ is: You don’t have an agenda that they should be anywhere but where they are.” ~ Ram Dass
Meet them right where they are, not where you think they ‘should’ be.
Don’t project onto them how you think they ‘should’ be working through their situation, or their feelings. If your loved one is crying, let them cry. If they aren’t crying, don’t project that they ‘should’ be crying. Give your loved one space to have their process, whatever it is.
Temper your expectations.
Don’t expect them to function the same way that they used to function. Depending on the nature of their situation, your loved-one’s physical, mental, and/or emotional state is compromised.
Don’t expect them to know what they need, what they want, what they are feeling, or what they are doing right now. And if they do know what they need, trust that they are telling you the truth.
My father died on a Tuesday. Wednesday morning, six people were buzzing my door, checking up on me. One friend aimed me toward my kitchen and said, “I know you don’t feel like eating, but you’ve got to eat something. Pick something. It doesn’t matter what it is. Eat.” It’s what I needed, but I didn’t know I needed it.
A few days after my Dad died, I had a date with a friend for a carwash party, at his mother’s house. She asked me where I was staying. I told her I was staying at the Condo (Where I lived with my father). She said, “No. You are staying here now. Stay in the guest room for as long as you need.” That was exactly what I needed, but I didn’t know that I needed it.
At that time, I worked for a close friend. She offered me time off from work. I said, “Oh, no. Everything in my life is extraordinary right now, and I need something normal. Work is normal. I’ll be in to work tomorrow.” I knew that was what I needed and wasn’t afraid to communicate that. She trusted me enough to know what my abilities and limitations were and met me right where I was.
A couple weeks after my Dad died, I was visiting a couple friends over dinner. When I sat down, the lady of the house asked me how I was doing. In that moment, I was tired. I was tired of thinking about and talking about my Dad’s death, and I was tired of feeling about it. I told her, “I’m tired of talking about death and grieving. Distract me.” And she did. She spent the next several minutes talking about challenges at work, her boss, something her best friend did that she didn’t like... I honestly don’t know what she talked about, but for that evening, I didn’t have to think about or feel about death or grieving. And I was very grateful for that.
Don’t take things personally.
Your loved one is in crisis. They are in a Compromised State. They may be feeling vulnerable and frightened about their predicament. Their words and actions are coming from a compromised state and may not be kind or tolerant. Do not take this personally.
Even after his cancer diagnosis, and until a couple weeks before his passing, my Dad chose to work. One day, he came home and got very angry to find his bedroom window was closed. The window-washers came by for some annual maintenance, and the windows needed to be shut. This window was lodged in pretty tightly, and because of the cancer, his muscles were too weak to pull the window open. He yelled and cursed at me out of frustration. Very softly and evenly I told him, “I know you had a long day and that you’re in a lot of pain. Please don’t take it out on me.” And I left the room.
Five minutes later, he knocked on my door and apologized for his outburst. I felt such love and compassion for him in that moment. I smiled at him and said, “I know it’s tough. We’ll get through it. We’ll get through it together.”
If your loved one is angry, or frustrated, don’t take their words or actions personally, but do maintain healthy boundaries about how you will be treated in the relationship.
What to say.
There is no one right thing or wrong thing to say to a loved one in crisis. In any crisis, we need to know two basic things: That we aren’t alone, and that we’ll be ‘okay.’
When my father was battling cancer, I frequently told him, “We’ll get through this, and we’ll get through it together.” I wanted to reassure him that he wasn’t alone.
When I’m with a loved one in crisis, I start at the very beginning, with basic self-care. “Have you eaten? Hydrated? Taken your supplements? Will you be able to sleep tonight? Would you feel more comfortable if I slept over tonight? Would you feel more comfortable sleeping at my place tonight?” Attending to basic self-care is a movement from ‘not okay’ to being ‘okay.’
Don’t just ask; do.
If they are in a crisis, look around your loved one’s immediate environment, and see what needs attending to. Are there dishes stacked in the sink. Tell your loved one, “I’m going to do your dishes. Let me know if you need anything.” Then do the dishes. If they don’t want you to do their dishes, that’s okay too. If my loved one is a coffee drinker, I start making a fresh pot of coffee, and let them know, “I’m going to make coffee. Let me know if you need anything.”
A loved one in a crisis just went from having a normal plate to a plate that is suddenly too full. Attending to things in the immediate environment frees up your loved one’s mental-emotional space for them to attend to the things that are REALLY important. If you’re going to help out around the home, communicate that: “I’m going to _ _ _ . Let me know if you need anything.”
Help them get help.
Don’t be your loved one’s only support. Your resources may not be enough, on their own. Depending on the nature of the crisis, additional help may be needed. Help your loved one become clear about where they need to go, what they need to do, and who they need help from. Network with other family members or friends about how to collectively help your loved one in crisis. Help your loved one gain additional resources to get them through whatever challenges they are facing.
Master the fine art of being there, and leaving them alone.
Effectively showing up for a loved one in a crisis is the fine art of being with them, and at the same time, letting them be where they are. On one hand, you are letting them know that they are not alone, and on the other hand, giving them space to have their process, whatever their process is, on that day, in that moment.
I value your input, and I’d love to hear from you. What are some of your effective strategies for helping your loved ones, when they are in crisis or coping with change?
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One of the greatest life-lessons I learned while caring for my father was this: Love people right where they are, not where you think they ‘should’ be.
~ Daniel W. Finney, CHt