Two weeks ago I posted the first part of this two part series on how to help someone who is going through a traumatic situation. If you haven’t read Part 1 yet you can do so by clicking here.
I know I said I would have this one posted a few days after my last one, but right afterwards I hit a low point and didn’t have the energy to work on this one. You can’t write anything positive when your mindset is negative.
Now that I’m somewhat passed my most recent wave, this blog is going to be fun to write. I’ve been trying to do my best to focus on positive things and so I am looking forward to talking about all of the amazing things people have done for me in the past few months.
My last blog post was about things that are unhelpful in traumatic situations and yet are often the responses people go to when they are trying to comfort someone. It occurred to me that all 5 things on my previous list were things not to say, while the the majority of what I am going to talk about in this blog post are things that are helpful to do. So often when we are unsure how to respond to a situation, in our nervousness or emotional state we let our mouths run (and end up pulling a Michael Scott) and thats how we get into the problems on list on Part 1. I’m hoping that between my last blog and this one I can help turn hurtful nervous talking to helpful practical doing.
1. DO Be present
Don’t underestimate the value of your presence. Being there means so much more than any words you could put together. One of the moments at Jon’s funeral that stood out to me was when a friend of mine walked up to me, didn’t say anything, but with tears in his eyes he shook his head and hugged me. Not a word was spoken but it was what I needed most. Another friend of mine had just moved out of state. A few days before the funeral his car was totaled in an accident. He had every excuse not to be there. No one would fault him. But he came anyways. The fact that he had gone through so much to be there meant more to me than anything he could have tried to come up with to say. In moments of tragedy there are no words, don’t even bother trying to come up with something to say, just be present.
This quote from C. S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed perfectly describes what I felt in those first few weeks.
At other times it feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says. Or perhaps, hard to want to take it in. It is so uninteresting. Yet I want the others to be about me. I dread the moments when the house is empty. If only they would talk to one another and not to me.”
― C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed
I wanted people around me. I needed people around me. Not because of anything they could say, but because simply being in the presence of friends is comforting. Even if it’s just sitting in silence. When words are meaningless, presence is powerful. Be there.
2. DO Offer specific things to help
“What can I do to help?”
“What do you need?”
“Can I do anything for you?”
I was asked those questions all of the time but my answer was always the same: “I don’t know.” I really didn’t know. I couldn’t even remember if I had eaten or not each day so there was no way I could even think about what I might need help with. There is nothing at all wrong with asking those questions, but a better thing would to just pick something and do it.
If you can’t think of anything to do, as crass as it sounds, everyone needs money. That was my biggest need in the beginning and I was so blessed to have a community who came together to fulfill that need. I was overwhelmed and amazed at how much was raised for me. It lifted the burden of debt and vehicles from my shoulders, which was such a relief considering all of the new burdens I was carrying.
Another thing everyone needs is food. Friends set up a meal train for several weeks and it was such a blessing. With all of the family and friends I had coming and going and everyone in a state of shock and grief, it was really nice to not have to worry about something as mundane as cooking dinner. Honestly, if it weren’t for the food being dropped off each evening I probably would have just not ate anything.
Some of the tasks people did for me that meant the most was dealing with the car. Jon passed away while in the car on his way home from playing basketball. Thankfully I never saw the inside. Evidently there was a bit of a mess. I can’t even explain how much I appreciate the various people who: picked up the car and brought it home, cleaned the initial mess, kept it at a different house so I didn’t have to see it, fixed the window that was smashed in (I’ve always hated that car doors automatically lock for that very reason) and had it detailed. By the time I had it home again there was no evidence that anything had happened in it.
Any task that you have the ability to do, just do it. Big or small, finding something practical to help with or just a kind gesture means a lot. On a couple different occasions I had friends swing by randomly to bring me doughnuts (my pregnancy craving) and it made my day each time. The photographer who took our family photos not 2 weeks earlier put together a photo book for me. My parents help me with Jocelyn so I can shower or get out of the house. My sister in law dropped off Jon’s clothes that I had put aside for charity. My mom and sister redecorated my bedroom. There were lots of little things people did for me that I was so grateful for. Too many to list here.
So if you find yourself wanting to help someone going through a hard time, look around see if there are any practical things that need to be done or needs that you could help meet. If not, a kind gesture like bringing a favorite snack or giving a gift card for a night out can mean just as much.
3. DO Keep checking in
In the days and weeks following Jon’s death my Facebook, inbox, phone and mailbox were all full of messages. I can’t even tell you how many I received, but I read every single one. I made an effort to reply to each one but I gave up a quarter of the way through. There were just too many and I didn’t have the energy to thank each person individually. I really appreciated all of the support and love that was sent my way. The sheer number of people who took the time to write me made me feel very loved. There were so many that I honestly can’t remember who messaged me or what was said.
After the first month the steady stream of messages slowed down to a trickle and they basically stopped by the end of the second month. The cards and messages that came later stood out and had more of an individual impact on me. Especially since the second through fourth months were the hardest for me. Checking in with someone after some time has passed is incredibly encouraging. It is very lonely when it seems like everyone has gone back to their regular lives while you’re still trying to sort through the wreckage of your own life.
Don’t let a lack of response discourage you. Its been 6 months and I’m still slow at responding to condolences (some people are still just finding out). Responding is hard. What do you say? At first when people came up t0 me and said “Im sorry” I would respond out of habit with “It’s ok.” It was anything but “ok” but I didn’t know what I was supposed to say. I still don’t.
Even though I was bad at responding, getting cards and messages from people letting me know that they were thinking of me made me feel supported and loved, especially the ones that came after “normal life” resumed. It doesn’t have to be anything deep or elaborate. Even something as simple as a Facebook comment, especially ones on my blogs or posts about my grief journey make me feel like I haven’t been forgotten. You don’t have to over think it. Just knowing that I was on someone’s heart was encouraging.
4. DO Be normal
Ok so I can’t tell you how much I love this quote about Eeyore and thankfully I have had friends that did this for me. A little over a year ago Jon orchestrated an ongoing weekly game night with a group of friends. I will always be grateful for him doing that. I would never have guessed how much I would need those game nights. It took our group a little over a month to get past the shock and initial grief to resume those hang outs. But the routine of it gave me a small sense of normalcy. There was at least one small part of my life that hadn’t been changed.
Through out the past several months there have been many times where I ended up hanging out with friends while I was in the thick of grief. I’d be honest with them with where I was at emotionally, sometimes I would tell them I wasn’t up to coming. Generally they gently insisted that it would probably be good for me to get out. They were always right. When I did hang out on those particularly hard days they never made me talk about it or tried to force me to cheer up. They just acted like it was a normal day only with no expectations for my level of involvement and truly that’s what I needed the most.
For awhile I felt like many people viewed me as a walking tragedy. I am so grateful for friends who didn’t treat me like I was made of porcelain. Being treated like Erica and not like the Grieving Widow helped me start to reconnect to myself again.
One of the best things you can do to help someone whose life has been drastically changed for the worst is to treat them like the person that they were before, only don’t have any expectations of them. They might not be up to talking or be excited or involved in whatever you are doing and that needs to be ok. Which brings me to my next point..
5. DO Validate their feelings
Whatever they are feeling is right. No matter what. Even if reality doesn’t line up with how they feel, their feelings are still truth to them. Throughout this journey I have often felt completely and utterly alone and isolated. Now, I’ve just spent paragraphs talking about how I have had awesome friends and family who have done so much for me in this season. Clearly I have been surrounded by people who love me. That is the absolute truth. However, that truth does not change the fact that I have felt incredibly lonely for a decent portion of the past 6 months. Lonely in a way that few people can relate to.
When two people become “one flesh” their lives become so intertwined that it’s difficult to see where one begins and the other ends. Jon’s life was embedded into mine and mine in his. His presence touched every conceivable area of my life, so when he was ripped from me I was constantly aware of his absence. I was lonely for a different, deeper level of companionship than friends and family could provide. Of course I was not able to understand or articulate this reasoning for a long time. I think my struggle with loneliness has hurt some people, as if their presence wasn’t valued, which was not the case at all.
When it comes to dealing with emotions, it’s also important to be with people where they are at. Find out what they are feeling and match your tone and words accordingly.
When I found out I was pregnant I wept for hours. I was devastated. I was angry and overwhelmed. The responses I got from the news were overwhelmingly enthusiastic: “thats so exciting!”, “I’m so happy for you!” and “I hope it’s twins!!!” (⬅ seriously??!!). Those responses only made me feel worse. Try and keep your emotional response on the same page as theirs. There were several people who responded perfectly. I think the best response was when someone said, “Thats the best and the worst news possible.” That person understood how to meet me where I was at. Obviously I have made it to the point where I am happy and excited about my son (even if I am still overwhelmed sometimes), but that took several months.
If you are trying to love on someone who is going through a traumatic experience, just know their feelings most likely have nothing to do with you or even with reality. So try your best to not take anything they are going through personally. They might be angry, lonely, frightened or any combination of negative emotions. They very likely will be feeling things about themselves or their situation that are clearly untrue. The worst thing to do is tell them that what they are feeling is wrong. Give them permission to feel the way they do without apology. Tell them it’s normal. One of the most encouraging things I was told was that “it’s ok to be weak”. Once you have validated their feelings, then, as gently as you can, you can remind them of the truth. It might take awhile for their hearts to come into agreement with their minds. Just be patient.
(If you’re wondering if there’s going to be a Lord of the Rings or Narnia quote in every blog. Yes, there probably is. lol)
Eowyn may be my favorite female character, but Sam is hands down the true hero of Lord of the Rings. Without his unwavering support the mission would likely have failed. His friend was carrying a burden that he could never understand. But Sam remained steadfast through the journey, always offering an encouraging word or a hearty meal (both equally important). Even when his efforts went unappreciated, he stood by his friend. While you cannot carry someone else burden for them, you can carry them and believe me, they’re going to need to be carried. When someone’s world is being destroyed by forces much greater than them, the best advice I can give to you is to be a Sam.
Frodo: “I can’t do this, Sam…”
Sam: “I know… It’s all wrong. By rights we shouldn’t even be here… But we are… It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were, and sometimes you didn’t want to know the ending, because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened. But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come and when the sun shines it’ll shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you, that meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr Frodo, I do understand… I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back only the didn’t. They kept going, because they were holding onto something…
Frodo: What are we holding onto, Sam?
Sam: That there’s some good in this world, Mr Frodo… And it’s worth fighting for.