I decided to go for a walk today. In my headphones, the podcast ‘On Being’ where the host was interviewing Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, and Adam Grant, professor of psychology.They talked about Sheryl’s loss of her husband Dave and how that triggered the creations of their book and non-profit organization ‘Option B’. Tears were streaming down my face as I was listening to the interview (leaving the people I passed on the way looking very puzzled indeed), having experienced a lot of what they were talking about first hand after losing my first daughter Ingrid.
I work with disaster on a daily basis, as I have the honour of being invited to the most painful parts of peoples lives, be it a heart ripping divorce or separation; the loss of a job and with it, financial safety and loss of identity; a devastating medical diagnosis; crushed hopes and dreams; fears of failure; or carrying stories of guilt and shame that consumes your energy and robs you of joy.
It is, in my humble opinion, the most soul baring and brave act a person can engage in, to open up about their grief, loss and sense of feeling completely lost. The willingness to heal from disaster and devastation; to start building resilience muscles; to find a new “normal”; and to aim for post-traumatic growth instead of post-traumatic stress is indeed an act of bravery. But, as with everything in life, a little help from a friend will make this journey a lot easier.
Adversity, grief and loss come with the package of being human, and if you want to engage in relationships with people you most certainly will bump into someone going though a life crisis at some point. Yet we live in a society that doesn’t want to talk about adversity. When disaster strikes, it often leads to a whole host of everyday awkward moments, leaving the affected person feeling even more isolated and weird; or as Sheryl pointed out in the interview “I felt like a ghost (that everyone avoided).”
Often when we meet a co-worker, a neighbour or a friend that has gone though something devastating, it’s like they are being followed by a big elephant that no one wants to address. Rather than being the “idiot” that said the “wrong thing”, many of us opt for the far less scary option of saying nothing.
So how do you become the person who knows what to say and do?
Here are a few things to think about:
- Realise and acknowledge how dramatically their life has changed. There won’t be a “going back to normal”, there will only be a “building a new normal, or finding Option B.”
- Your friend might not be able to focus completely on work or anything else for a long time, so don’t expect them to jump right back up and behave like they always used to behave before the crisis hit them. Instead, try to evaluate how much he/she is able to handle and offer to share the workload.
- Stop and ask how they are doing, as in “How are you feeling today? Know that I’m here to listen.”, and then really live up to that promise even if it is uncomfortable!
- Meet up for a coffee break or go out for lunch. Don’t avoid them just because you feel uncomfortable.
- Ask him/her what they need right now. Offer practical help, such as grocery shopping, cooking, helping out with the kids, make sure that bills are being paid and appointments are being kept or re-scheduled.
- Offer your support and concern. There are no magic words, but at least say something like “I’m so sorry for your loss.”, “I know you must be suffering right now, I’m here for you.” or at least “I have no idea what to say.”
- Not everyone wants to talk about private matters at work or at the schoolyard, so respect their privacy if they don’t want to talk, but make sure they know that you are there for them should they want to talk.
- If the person has lost a loved one, talk about the memories and mention the name of the person or animal that died. You don’t have to be scared of thinking that you might remind them of their loss. They are acutely aware of it, all the time.
- Caring co-workers, neighbours, and friends can be a significant source of support and healing to a person going though a life crisis. Don’t downplay your your actions or think that what you say or do won’t matter as you “aren’t that close”. It might well be that what you are able to provide might be a hugely important part in the affected persons life and and play a role in their ability to heal. If a person feels acknowledged in their pain, suffering and grief, they will have a much better chance of emotional healing sooner.
- Remember that the person’s life will be changed FOREVER, not just the first couple of months. There is no time limit on grief.
- Be yourself and keep the relationship you had with the person before the life crisis occurred. There is nothing more devastating than when friends, neighbours or co-workers “disappear” or avoid you after a significant crisis.
Also, make sure you listen to the podcast I was mentioning in the beginning: https://onbeing.org/programs/sheryl-sandberg-and-adam-grant-resilience-after-unimaginable-loss/
Don’t wait for a life crisis to hit in your own life before you know how to be there for others, like I did.