A family in crisis, if they live in an active community of family or friends or both, will find themselves fielding regular offers of help. This is so many orders of magnitude better than the alternative of living in isolation, surrounded only by one’s own panic, but offers of help are not nearly as good as actual help, delivered while requiring as little as possible from the people who need it.
Article after article have been written about “ring theory,” the idea that, using a map of concentric layers around a person or family in crisis, support and comfort go in and complaints and requests go out. At the center of the circle is the person with the core issue; in the example of a family with a sick child, the child is at the center. While a parent might find their child’s howls of pain excruciating to hear, she would never dream of complaining about them to the child himself; more appropriate would be to complain to a good friend.
This is common sense, but sometimes, the farther out from the center, the harder it is to remember.
Everyone knows not to complain to the parents of a sick child about how much work it is to support them and their child during this crisis, even though it is indeed HARD to be involved in a crisis, however little it really touches your own life. Being around fear and anxiety is, itself, traumatic. Still, we know, as ring theory tells us, to “dump out.” It becomes trickier when it’s not so much “dumping” our complaints as it is “dumping” the hard work of finding out what our struggling friends really need.
Imagine it this way: you are dangling from a bridge by your hands, the water four hundred feet below. Your palms are sweating and your fingers feel like they might break. Above you, a friend stands, eager to help.
“Which hand do you want me to take?” she asks.
“I don’t know!” you manage to say through gritted teeth. “Just help me!”
“I totally want to help you!,” she says, kneeling down to your face, “but what would be the most helpful thing? Your right hand? Or your left? Or should I grab you under your arm pits?”
“ANYTHING IS FINE, JUST PLEASE HELP!” you yell. “I’M FALLING!”
“Ok, ok,” she says as her phone starts to ring. “Just let me get this call real quick. Let me know when you’ve chosen a hand and I’ll grab it.”
This is an exaggeration — but not by much — of what it feels like to be told, “We’re here for you, whatever you need. Just give us a call day or night.” When a person is dangling from his emotional version of a cliff, “whatever you need” is a request to do work for the person asking. This isn’t universally true, of course, but for many people, that offer feels like the beginning of a multi-step task:
- Think of something I need done
- Decide, of all the things, which is the one most suited to the person who is offering
- Make a plan for getting it done (schedule, information-sharing, etc.)
Once all that information starts rolling around in the brain of the person clinging to the bridge, he might just decide it’s easier to save himself. So, what’s a better way to handle it? Here are just a few options:
- “Hey, I’d like to bring you dinner on Tuesday night. Can I leave it outside your back door in a cooler sometime around 5?”
- “I thought you might like these magazines to read when your sick kid is sleeping. Just toss them when you’re done; I don’t need them back.”
- “Would your younger daughter like to come over and play on Wednesday after school? I can keep her for dinner if that’s easier.”
- “As long as I’m here visiting, let me fold some laundry/rake some leaves/make you a pot of soup. It’s relaxing for me and we’ll get it done faster together.”
- “Would you teach me how to manage your son’s medicine/equipment/care for a few hours so you can get out of the house next week?”
As long as you’re not hanging on to the edge of your own bridge, you have the mental capacity to manage the extra few steps that take you from asking the person in crisis to make the plan to offering him some all-planned-out, concrete help.
My best friends are the ones who never ever asked me to make the plan. One of them bought button-down pajamas for my daughter before the cardiac surgery that would make it hard for her to lift her hands over her head. Another bought a new colander and some parchment paper liners so that she could cook for my daughter, who was following a strict elimination diet. One friend dragged me out to lunch while I waited for the next bit of terrible news, and one showed up at my house several days in a row with bags of neatly cut-up fruit when it was one of the only things my daughter could eat. One looked me in the eye at just the right moment and said, clearly, “None of this was your fault.”
Over many years, I spent hours in a depressing room waiting for a surgeon to tell me how my daughter had fared in her latest procedure. Though I always gripped my husband’s hand, tethered to him in love and an unarguably strong connection, the tension of days like this was something we often couldn’t relieve for each other. We both knew everything the other did and had little real comfort to offer. We felt far from home – we were together, but we were still lost.
In reality, the moment a surgeon arrived with good news for us, time after time, the first people I wanted to tell (after my daughter’s grandparents) were always a cluster of women who I knew, without a doubt, were waiting in their homes and offices to hear from me. I could picture them: one at her kitchen counter, washing the breakfast dishes and activating her mother’s prayer group on the east coast; one at her desk, quietly meditating and sending healing energy; one on her commute to the office to see therapy clients, her hair blowing dry in the breeze from her car’s heater; one in her classroom, lecturing high school students at the top of her voice; one on a stoic and wind-blown walk at the lake with her dog; and one, across an ocean on the other side of the world, at the end of her day, staying awake to hear the news of what happened in that aging room where I waited.
These are my soul sisters.