five tips for helping in a crisis
1. Show up.
While given with the best of intentions, I now realize that a “please don’t hesitate to call if you need me” is kind of meaningless in a crisis. Most people will not ask for help. We are too trained to be self-sufficient, to not burden others, to hide our need for assistance.
This has become painfully obvious to me in the days following my brother-in-law’s tragic death. I’m up again at 4am, sorting through the past few days, trying to figure out what is working and what is not. But I keep coming back to one thing: how humbled I am by the number of people who have just shown up at my sister’s door. Sometimes they don’t even knock, they just quietly come in and drop off food.
I feel as if I’ve taken a master class in crisis management this week. And I want to write these ideas down while they are still fresh. More than anything, they are for me to refer to in future crises. In the past, I’ve sometimes offered help to someone suffering a loss but have not followed through. That ends today. If you are family member, friend or neighbor, I will be there next time.
So, here’s the tip: show up at the door, give hugs, listen if they want to talk, respect silences, bring food if food means comfort to THEM (bring it wrapped and freezer-ready, too), and most of all, make a plan to check back in 2-3 weeks – that’s really the most meaningful time to visit a bereaved person. The days leading up to a funeral are horribly hectic: plans to put in motion, the phone ringing every five minutes, visitors coming and going, etc. There is typically a big crash when everyone returns home to their lives. A week or two later is sometimes the best time to show up.
2. Find something tangible to do.
Do you have a scanner? Offer to scan old family photos for the memorial. This takes no special talent and is something real and tremendously helpful. Are you a baker? Offer to provide bite-size sweets at the reception following the service. Fold programs. Help clean up after the service. Run errands.
3. Check in.
Send a card, send a text, send an email. Try not to call in the beginning to let them know you are thinking of them. There are so many notification calls to be made as well as calls pertaining to the funeral, yet the phone never stops ringing. It is exhausting to field so many at one time. If you absolutely must call, try other family members instead. They may have a good handle on how things are going and can forward your message. See #1 above and be sure to check in when you can.
4. It’s not about you, it’s about them.
Unless you absolutely, positively KNOW the religious affliation of the bereaved person, DO NOT do any of the following:
- Have them stand there and pray with you (do this on their behalf, in the privacy of your own home)
- Bring religious pamphlets or other informational materials about loss, grief, etc. (trust that they are being counseled by their own religious group or support network)
- Include crosses or religious iconography on the outsides of envelopes (especially if they are not religious)
- Include any religious references in your communications to them (unless you attend the same church, how can you possibly know if this will comfort them or make them uncomfortable?)
Again, it’s about them, not about you.
5. Mend fences.
Death reminds us how fragile life is. If you have a rift with a bereaved person, please consider taking the time to mend it. Death brings a horrible burden of guilt no matter what the circumstances and old wounds can easily resurface. Forgive. Forget. Mend the fence.