In this five-part series I have tried to explain what works and what doesn’t when trying to send a message of support to someone in a time of crisis. I have used actual notes and e-mails that were sent to well spouses. I thank these people for allowing me to use their painful experience as an example that we can all learn from.
One excellent way of dealing with a crisis is to have someone you trust screen your calls. In this way you can pick and choose whom you are ready to talk to. You also do not have to repeatedly retell a horrendous experience or give an update on a loved one’s condition over and over. Let someone else, who may be somewhat less emotionally involved or perhaps feels stronger at the moment, handle that part of the phone calls. Hopefully people will understand that the screener is handling the phone at your request and not challenge them or try to get past them to speak to you. This is not always the case. I’d like to share a story told to me by one of my readers. She was in crisis as her husband’s illness became critical. Her daughter insisted on screening the calls so she should get some rest.
“I’m sorry. She just went to lie down. It’s been a difficult day.”
“Oh, but I just want to talk to her.”
“She’s probably sleeping by now. She’s been really exhausted.”
“Tell her it’s me. I’m sure she’ll take the call. How long ago did she go to lay down?”
“About 15 minutes ago – she really was tired.”
“I’m sure she’s not sleeping yet. Go and check. Did she go to sleep for the night? I have to lie down because I’m not feeling well. So, she won’t be able to call me later because I’ll be lying down.”
It seems pretty clear from this interchange where the caller’s priorities are. Not wanting to be disturbed when she goes to rest because she isn’t feeling well, the caller wants to get the conversation over with. The fact that the person in crisis is resting seems to be irrelevant. There is little that will be said later that will erase the negative feelings evoked by this call. The recipient of the call is left with a total feeling of not being cared about or supported, whether that is the true intention or not.
Compare that call to this one mentioned in a previous article.
“Hi. It’s…. I don’t want to bother her. Just tell her we’re thinking about her and praying for them both. If she needs something, we’re here. But please don’t disturb her.”
The priorities of this message are clear. The caring comes through, and the support is felt even though they haven’t directly talked to the caller.
When talking to a person in crisis, it is so important to remember the purpose of the call or visit. Hopefully that is to give care and support to the person. You are not there to give advice, unless asked for it. You are not there to talk about your own problems or fill a silence with idle chatter. You are not there to put your needs before hers. Just being there, holding someone’s hand can often give a clearer message than your words. Offer actual help; making food, taking the children out, picking up prescriptions, etc.
If you want to make someone feel better, if you want to show someone you care, it is important that you empathize with her/him. You need to acknowledge how the person feels and affirm how difficult things are. Empathy doesn’t survive well when you talk about yourself, whether it’s your joys or sorrows or putting your own needs first. There is certainly an appropriate time to talk about what’s going on in your life, but that should only come after you’ve empathized with the person in pain and not instead of it. It should come as a response to questions and not just to make conversation.
Talking about your life and needs should not take the bulk of the conversation with the person you have come to help. If you are asked about yourself, keep your responses in proportion. Don’t let talking about your problems outweigh the focus of the call – them. It is important to remember why you are having the conversation. You are there to give support to them. “Them” is the important word to stay focused on.
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