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Let Me Tell You What You Need To Do (Part Four)


Last week I gave examples of supportive messages to people in crisis. I attempted to show how comments that are helpful are those that acknowledge a person’s feelings, do not give advice, only talk about the people involved, give specific offers of help and do not give the added burden of jobs for the person in crisis – even if that is only to return a phone call. This week, I’d like to share with you notes that were sent to me by infuriated well spouses. These notes, though an attempt to be supportive, effectively did just the opposite. Unfortunately these types of messages seem to be much more common and typical of how people verbally give support. By sharing them with you, it is my hope that we all will learn how to express supportive feelings more positively. Learning what not to say is just as important as learning what to say.


 


 “Thanks for letting me know what happened. I’m glad to hear there’s a bit of improvement. Did they tell you I called? Are you back on track with other stuff (book clubs, etc.)? What have you read lately? Is there anything to recommend? Things here are good. My kids have started school, thank G-d, so I can breathe a little during the day. My husband is doing great at his job. I’m really enjoying….”


 


 “Is (your wife) home from the hospital? Would like to know. Since I feel very close to you…I’d like to share with you that…I have been hit with depression and anxiety. I am doing alright but I can use your prayers and any thoughts you have. We are scheduled to go on a cruise Sunday …The doctor really wants me to go. My family had been great. Keep in touch.


 


 “I will add … to my Tehillim list. I have been feeling guilty, because as many times as I think of him – and I do – I have been derelict, and I know it. I will be going to a spa in two days and can’t wait. It will help me handle all the stress of getting ready for our vacation in Europe. There’s so much to do to get ready, it’s depressing.”


 


 I chose these notes because they were examples of the kinds of many, many notes forwarded to me by angry, well spouses. Though the spouses knew the notes probably were well intentioned, they found it unbelievable how the focus was immediately switched to the writer’s life and troubles instead of staying focused on the life and problems of the people to whom they thought they were offering words of support. As one woman put it, “My husband is lying in intensive care. The prognosis is uncertain, though there was some slight improvement shown. But look at what she’s complaining to me about! The stress of preparing for a vacation is so bad that she has to go to a spa! And she’s depressed! Maybe she’d like to trade places with me and realize what there is in the world to really get depressed about!”


 


 Most friends, including well spouses, like to hear about the good things in your life, as well as the difficulties. They do want to be helpful. But sharing your problems during their crisis is not appropriate. While trying to be supportive to a friend, that is not the time to focus on yourself and your hardships. Your focus needs to be with the family in crisis, and only them. It is also not the time to “give out jobs” and ask for forgiveness. “I have been derelict” is a confession that asks for forgiveness. It is difficult for a person in crisis to tell you that it’s o.k. that you haven’t been in touch, or there for them in any way, because it is simply not o.k.


 


 Forgiveness, if that’s what you’re asking for, is more easily given after a crisis. That is the more appropriate time to ask to be forgiven and to explain why you weren’t there for them. A crisis is also not the time for “chit-chatty” questions. Getting back to someone about your leisure reading book recommendations not only gives the person in crisis a job to do, but shows a total lack of understanding of his/her situation. Few people I have met who are in a crisis are able to do recreational reading, especially when focusing on the hour and concentrating on what they need to do just to get through the day becomes so difficult.


 


 If you are in crisis yourself, perhaps the best thing for you to do is stay away and keep silent. If you can’t give a few words of support without being able to ask for help and advice for yourself, just send a “thinking of you” card and simply avoid contact till that person’s crisis has passed. Then you can share why you weren’t there for them and they will understand that you were going through a crisis yourself. But don’t replace their needs in a crisis with yours. That simply states that your needs are more important than theirs.


 


 I hope some of these thoughts will help people better express the support they want to show to someone in a crisis. Clearly, the writers of the above notes did care and wanted to express their concern. After all, they took the time to write the notes in the first place. It is unfortunate that their message of concern got lost as they progressed. It is even more unfortunate that their letters caused anger and pain. Hopefully, the points I’ve tried to emphasize from these letters will help others when the occasion arises, so as to express support to a friend in crisis.


 


 You can contact me at annnovick@hotmail.com

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When one is blind one learns to use Braille to read. When one cannot walk, a wheelchair gives mobility. Sign language allows a mute person to speak and ocular implants assist in hearing when one is deaf. These are all compensatory strategies that help a person function despite his disability. But compensatory strategies are not just for physical problems. Understanding our psychological weaknesses and setting up our lives to ensure that we are not tempted to repeat our past mistakes, is as necessary as any aid to the disabled.

Well spouses have often discovered that their friends and relatives, despite their closeness to the situation, often don’t realize the tremendous emotional impact living with chronic illness has on the family. With the best intentions, suggestions, ideas and criticism are offered, based on the non-experience of those with healthy families. Even when the good intentioned get a taste of the difficulties, it is sometimes not enough for them to then identify and understand what the family of the chronically ill must face on a constant basis.

Over the past two weeks I have shared letters from a therapist and a well spouse. Both of the letters gave personal insights into the process of losing hope, how we react when that happens and some ways of coping when test scores, diagnosis and just simple repetitive behavior indicate that change for the better is impossible.

Dear Ann,

I’ve read your last few articles on psycho-neurological testing (Oct.8-22) with interest. As a therapist who has counseled couples dealing with chronic illness, I’d like to give you another perspective.

Dear Ann,

Your articles on the Neuro-Psychological Testing were right on (October 8-22). My husband underwent testing twice and your articles explained it things exactly the way they were. Besides the test, we also tried therapy.

Very often when we can’t face our big hurts or big loses we focus on the little ones. We can discuss those. We can cry over the small loses, be angry at the smaller hurts even though it may look trite and sound ridiculous to others.

Over the last two weeks we have been discussing one way in which well spouses can determine whether behavior displayed by their ill partners is caused by their illness or is a way they have chosen to act. We have focused on Psycho-Neurological testing, what it can tell us, as well as its pros and cons.

Last week I discussed a question that haunts many well spouses: not knowing if the difficult and often inappropriate behavior frequently displayed by their partners are caused by the disease and therefore not-controllable, or if the behavior is a choice the spouse makes and can therefore be changed. This doubt can be the source of much frustration and many marital disagreements. One way of alleviating this doubt is by having a psycho- neurological work up done. But that path is not so simple.

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