What Should You Say to Someone in Crisis?
I am so glad to present a post by Joanne Eddy who responded to my wish on contributing on this subject. The purpose of her blog is “A blog for writers, readers and anyone trying to live their call”. That could be my sentence as well. In a post called Difficult Questions in a Time of Crisis I asked you my co-blogger friends to write on this subject in each your way.
I will let Joanne speak for herself:
Maria asked me to do a guest post to answer this question. I sure hope she won’t be sorry!
As someone who has practiced as a Clinical Social Worker, I have been asked this question many times. The answers may surprise you.
But before you start, there are a couple of pieces of background to keep in mind. Crisis, like grief, creates different reactions that can fluctuate rapidly or slowly. They can be numbness and disbelief, confusion or inability to make a decision, fear or panic, anger, worry, a sense of loss, hurt, depression before resolution occurs. This will be true whether the crisis is a lost job, lost marriage, wayward child, or grappling with a serious illness or a death.
With that in mind, the first thing to say is:
Some version of “I Care.” This may be, “I love you.” It may be, “I’m here for you.” It may just be a hug. It most certainly should involve being there. Your presence, even without words, may be the most important thing. Non-verbals count. Too much talking is not necessarily a better answer. Make a pot of coffee or tea. Bring their favorite cookies and set them on a plate and sit with them in silence until they speak….and then, when it feels right, ask:
“Do You Want to Tell Me About it?” At some point they need to tell their story of the experience. Their answer, at first, may be no or the shake of a head. If so, sit with them companionably. Don’t fill up all the air by thinking you’ll just talk until they do. They may need space in order to speak. After a bit you can follow up with, “Are you ok?” Even if that leads to another head shake no, it is still a message of “I Care.” It should be a gentle encouragement, not a push, to simple convey, “I can take it if you say you aren’t ok.” The follow up to another head shake can be a statement: “I can listen if and when you want to talk.” Non-judgmental listening will let them tell their story in their own time and in their own way. (And this is not a time to share your story or how you’ve solved crises in the past.)
You can talk about and help with routine things: “Do you need help to get the kids to school? Do you need anything from the grocery store.” If they are pretty numb, it may help to look around, notice they are almost out of coffee and toilet paper and run the errand, or just get out a broom and sweep. It may help to walk the dog or make a meal or put the kids to bed. Creating a bit of order can be a very concrete support.
Once they do speak and tell their story, reflect back what they are saying to give them room to move forward. i.e. They say, “I HATE him…or funerals…or life.” You repeat in a neural tone, “So, you really hate life now…or him now…. or having to deal with funerals.” Agreement may be unhelpful, neutral is better. Do NOT jump in with judgments. (“I always thought he was a jerk.” “Funerals stink and when I die I’m not having one.” “Life does stink, and all drunk drivers should be shot!”) and don’t ever say, “I know just how you feel.” You don’t. That’s about you. This is about them. And it leaves no space for the person in crisis to vent some anger, and then change their mind or feel more than one feeling. You can end up imposing your view at a time when they are confused about what they feel. If you stay neutral, they can say, “Well, I don’t hate him. He really was a good boss. But being laid off stinks!” Then:
Help them explore the feeling. Ask open-ended questions in their language that don’t lead to yes or no answers. i.e. If you ask, “Being laid off stinks?” their answer will be, “Yes.” But you can help them fill in the blank for themselves, “So what about being laid off, stinks the worst?” That will let them explore multiple feelings and issues they are facing coming from the crisis. “I don’t have a resume.” “I don’t know how I can pay my mortgage.” This can break the crisis into smaller pieces which can be addressed one at a time, the same way you eat an elephant. The follow-up, based on their answer is, “So what have you been thinking about doing about that?”
You Don’t Have to Have Their Answers, in fact you can’t…but You Can Help them find their own. My most important answer to the question at the root of this post is: we shouldn’t try to provide answers to people in crisis, even when they ask us to. For example, I recently got a text and then a follow-up phone call from a friend. Her marriage has been difficult for a long while, but some recent crises have increased the strain. Her questions to me, “What would you do? Should I leave him?’, seem easy for me to answer: “YES! YES, I would.” But it’s not my life, my marriage, or my kids. I neutrally asked, “So you are thinking about leaving him?” (With no tone of: FINALLY! which would have imposed my judgment.) Her response was “Should I just go home (to another state)?” is a message: I am thinking of leaving and I don’t know where to go or if I should stay here. Again, the consequences would be ones she faces, so the best answers are questions: “What would be the best parts of going home and what would be the worst?” “If you made a list of pros and cons of your choices which list would be the longest…or the strongest?”
Other great questions to ask: “Have you ever faced anything like this before? What helped then?” and “What resources work for you?” Maybe they have a therapist they saw in the past, or a minister who has helped them before and could help them sort things through now. Maybe meditation helps, or exercise, or walks in the wood. If they are believers, an offer to pray with or for them may help.
Last but not least, Perspective. Sometimes, we just need a break to find it. Ask: Would you like to put things aside for a few hours and go to a movie? Or can I bring over some DVDs or order up something on Netflicks? Or can we go for a walk together? Could they take a weekend away? Never underestimate the power of laughter to heal and a funny video or movie to help with creating perspective. Sometimes perspective is what we need most. Sometimes, setting things aside makes it easier to look at them from a new direction.
So now that Maria has a huge post to deal with, my job is done with one serious notation:
If someone’s response to crisis is serious depression, or numbness that they remains stuck in, or they make statements of wanting to commit suicide or hurt themselves, they need professional support and possibly medication. Take this seriously. They need more resources than you have. Help them get help.
Thank you for this informative post on ways to help Joanne ! I can relate both to being in crisis and helping people in difficulties like you describe. I was reminded of what you call “Numbness” seeing myself about twelve years ago trying to get help to my son who had become psychotic. I had to drive him somewhere to get some therapy and before we left I had to go to the grocery store with the woman who helped me. I was looking at the food not knowing what to buy or how to make it to the check-out …one minute felt like an hour as I knew that I had the long drive ahead of me and no appetite. The story got a happy ending, but only after many years.