Thursday, August 19, 2010

Grief demands a response

There's a fascinating article in the New York Times titled Coping with Crises Close to Someone Else's Heart, which examines how friends, family, and the community at large respond to trauma. It is a common, while experiencing loss, illness, or difficulty, for friends and even family to fall away. Sometimes your life becomes myopically focused on the tragedy before you; you no longer have time or energy to devote to the people around you and relationships may drift away. Other times, people are unable to be near your pain out of fear that similar circumstances will befall them or because they are emotionally incapable. Maybe they want to help but don't know how or they don't want to say the wrong thing so they don't call or visit anymore. Sometimes it is intentional and others not.
For the most part, we were blessed with support and love; friends ran errands for us, delivered meals, sat in hospital waiting rooms, walked, talked and cried with us. But a couple of friends disappeared entirely. During the year we spent in eating-disorder hell, they called once or twice but otherwise behaved as though we had been transported to Mongolia with no telephones or e-mail...Given our preoccupation with our daughter’s recovery and my husband’s mother’s illness, we were no doubt lousy company. Maybe we’d somehow offended our friends. Or maybe they were just sick of the disasters that now consumed our lives; just because we were stuck with them didn’t mean our friends had to go there, too.
The author examines several common responses to someone else's trauma. As you read through, you may be surprised to self-identify with the responses. It's not enough to consider how other people have abandoned you in your time of need without examining if you have acted in the same way. Feeling grateful because it didn't happen to you and then guilty? I've been there. I'm sure we've all said the wrong thing at a funeral at some point. Before I experienced deep loss, I'm sure at some point I told people their loved one was in a better place. Now, after experiencing loss, I know that it is fine for me to say that my loved one is in a better place. But if anyone else tells me that, I am liable to smack them.

The latter part of the article focuses on "pseudo-care," in which help is offered but never followed up on. The classic "call me if there's anything I can do" when most people are too exhausted to think about what you could do or to even remember to call. While an expert dismisses telling someone you'll pray for them as ineffectual, I do believe in the power of prayer. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to pray for the person in the moment, continue praying for them throughout the weeks ahead, but also do something tangible like a load of laundry or running errands.

This may be the article's biggest point: "True empathy inspires what sociologists call instrumental aid. “There are any number of tasks to be done, and they’re as personal as your thumbprint,” Dr. Rainer said. If you really want to help a family in crisis, offer to do something specific: drive the carpool, weed the garden, bring a meal, do the laundry, go for a walk."

I'll never forget the friend who left a bouquet of flowers outside my apartment with a card the day I returned home from my grandma's funeral. Or the girls I mentored in youth group who dropped off chicken quesadillas and a salad while my great-aunt was declining. (The fact that these teen girls thought of this on their own and followed through was astounding to me!) The cards, the emails, the friends who dragged me out to dinner when I was coping with my grief by becoming a hermit...priceless. I strive to remember these blessings more than the friends and family who dropped away.

How have your loved ones responded to times of difficulty? What do you do to care for others? Does this apply to your professional world at all?

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