This is a guest post Laurel Breitman, Ph.D, writer and teacher and layman, clinical teacher. She holds a doctorate in the history and anthropology of science from MIT and is director of writing and storytelling in the Medical Humanities and Arts program at Stanford School of Medicine, where she helps clinical students, staff, and physicians communicate more clearly and vulnerable to themselves. benefit and their patients. Laurel is also the founder of Writing Medicine, a global writing community for healthcare professionals.
His latest book, Animal madness. inside their minds was New York Times bestseller and has been translated into seven languages. His work has appeared The New York Times, The Guardian, Wired, California Sundayand: National Geographic as well as on Radiolab, National Public Radio and many other media outlets. He splits his time between rural Alaska and his family’s commercial citrus and avocado ranch in Southern California.
It’s his new book What does courage look like? An epic journey through loss to love.
Life is nothing if not an endless buffet of dishes consisting of both disappointment and joy. For better or worse, I’ve had a lot of things happen to me that have given other people the opportunity to step in for me (or not). The death of close family members, bad diagnoses, natural disasters, divorces, but also the little things that sometimes cause just as much pain; . Along the way, I’ve learned a bit about what feels good and what doesn’t as a result of a crisis, big or small. Obviously, it’s not the same for everyone, but here are 10 tips on how to approach someone going through something bad that I’ve learned firsthand:
1. The best way to introduce someone is to just show up. Don’t overthink what you’re going to do or say, or unleash the dreaded but well-intentioned “Let me know if I can help” (which only puts a burden on them). Just do something. Anything. Even if it’s sending a card that says, “I’m so sorry.” A lot more people than you think freeze up and don’t act in difficult times because they’re afraid of doing or saying the wrong thing. When in doubt, just admit you’re stumped. Like “I’ve heard of XYZ. I have no idea what to say or how to support you. Just know that I’m thinking of you.”
2. Make it easy for the recipient of your act of kindness to receive it. Prevent someone from doing any work. For example, drop things off without going in and asking someone to host you (unless they specifically ask to visit). Offer help that doesn’t require them to share their schedule or hide a key (if they don’t). Instead, leave something on their doorstep that won’t spoil right away (or if it does, stick it on the fridge), send them something in the mail, or send them an email with your thoughts, but tell them bold letters that you do not expect an answer. When you text or call, don’t ask for updates and be sure to say you don’t expect a call or text back. You should also be clear that they don’t have to write you a thank you note for anything you send their way. Chances are you’ll hear from this person when the storm passes, but if you don’t, assume your kindness was appreciated.
3. Food is love. Just try to bring/send items that can be frozen and eaten later so they are less likely to go to waste. I like Spoonful of Comfort, but there are a million options. Gift cards for grocery stores or food delivery can also be great. But if it requires using an app, make sure the recipient or someone they’re spending time with has the app installed on their phone and knows how to use it.
4. Distract them…effectively. Being a little evasive in a crisis is hugely underrated. Refusing to focus on whatever is going on 24/7 doesn’t mean someone is in denial, it just means they can give their nervous system a break. TV is a great way to do this, but our endless buffet of streaming services can be overwhelming. So give someone an ordered list of uplifting things to watch (I’ve found that podcasts and books are often too much to focus on). The series Ted Lasso is a great example of crowd-pleasing, but the options are endless and should be tailored to the people you’re listing for. When my mother was dying, we watched Indian guardian on Netflix and it was perfect. My boyfriend swears by the Paddington movies. But maybe your lister finds solace in action movies or cooking competition shows or the real estate genre. Just try to focus on their tastes, not yours, and if they don’t have Amazon Prime or Apple TV+ or what have you, offer to get it for them.
5. Give a subscription to a meditation app. Personally, I couldn’t have gotten through the last few years without the Calm app. Even when it was too much to meditate, listening to music or nature sounds or sleep stories was fantastic. You can give someone a 30-day subscription or a whole year. Other options are Relax Meditation, Bettersleep, and Headspace. As with other materials that require some technical knowledge, make sure they can install it and know how to use it.
6. Thoughts are better than prayers. Unless you know someone specifically wants you to pray for them, don’t offer yours. Personally, despite being a very secular person, I love it when people offer to pray for me or my loved ones, but I may be in the minority. For someone who is not religious, this can feel patronizing or trivializing their pain. A better phrase is “You’re on my mind.”
7. Avoid the silver lining. These are sentences that begin with “At least…” or “Fortunately…”. The only thing that’s hard for you to do is when people try to force you to see the positive before you’re ready. Better options include “This is so hard!” “Tell me how you feel if you like it.” Or, even better, just make loving noises as they speak to encourage them to continue.
8. Materials. I know it’s very American to offer capitalist solutions to emotional pain, but here we are, and me to do love stuff lol. The following have given me and people I admire joy when things seem overwhelming:
- Nodpod Weighted Eye MaskSleep can be elusive when you worry that life as you know it is over. It may seem crazy to spend $34 on an eye mask, but it’s so soft and the weight is magical. It’s like a crib in your face.
- Kneipp bath oilsThere’s something about turning your bath water green, blue, or purple and submerging yourself in a quiet, herbal cloud that silences your screaming inner voices for a second. These oils aren’t cheap, but they aren’t super expensive either. I prefer sample packs so I can customize them to my mood. My favorite scents are Beauty Secret, Lavender and Goodbye Stress.
- Bird feeder. Really, any type that works for their patio/balcony/window (and is visible from a favorite area of the house) is great. Wildbirds Unlimited has good options and they can tell you what the best food is for the area, but don’t assume this. If the feeder runs out for the squirrels, that’s fine too. They are so much fun (check out this unicorn feeder if you doubt me). Feeder is nature’s streaming service and will provide endless hours of programming that will remind you that you are part of something bigger and that whatever you are going through is part of the cycle of life, even if it seems silly.
9. Take someone for a walk. A friend or acquaintance may not have the stamina to go through a difficult situation or the desire to go to a restaurant or attend even the smallest of gatherings. It takes too much energy to explain what’s going on in their lives… and crises make people mad at the small talk often required at events like this. Walking is easier. You don’t have to talk if you don’t want to, which makes for a low social time and also gives someone a bit of fresh air.
10. Be the last one to leave! Whether it’s a death, divorce, separation, lost job, missing pet, life-changing diagnosis, broken home, or something else; the person or people you’re introducing yourself to will really appreciate your reappearance six months or one or many years(!) after the fact. The field may be crowded with loss, but every day the world seems to remember less and less of what happened. Life goes on as it should. But that doesn’t mean the loss is any less acute for the person or people who suffered it. Send someone a message on their lost loved one’s birthday. Or during any holiday. Share memories of a person, place or creature without being asked. Remind someone that what’s important to them is still important to you. That it always will be.
Being around someone else is the best medicine for YOU. I’m a dog that needs a job or I can chew my tail. And my favorite job is to make someone feel a little alone. Maybe yours builds bikes or is good at answering phones or saving things your friends will love. All of these count. I don’t always present myself well to others, and like most acts of service, it comes from a selfish place (I want to feel good about myself and feel less alone), but that doesn’t make it questionable or less valuable. We all need meaning these days. Being the kind of person who’s helpful in a crisis (whether it’s with frozen lasagna, a handwritten note, offering a ride or babysitting, or a hearty friend to feed the pigeons on a walk or scream at the sky) is something we should all strive for. to—the type of gift that gives in two ways.
Laurel Breitman is an author What does courage look like? An epic journey through loss to love. It’s his website LaurelBraitman.com.
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