For the last two weeks I have been sharing parts of a well-meaning but inappropriate, advice-filled, e-mail that was sent to a well spouse through a third party. I have tried to use this e-mail as a tool to explain what in the letter caused such negative feelings in the well spouse. Today I’d like to give you an example of some wonderfully supportive e-mail and phone messages that several readers received and go into why I feel they are supportive.
“I am so sorry that (your husband’s) poor health did not allow him to be at (your simchah). You must have been stressed out beyond words. I thought of you last weekend but never dreamed that this is what you were experiencing.”
“Thank you for the update on Y’s condition. I’m so sorry this happened. If there is anything I can do to help, just give me a list when I call. I can be available if not for ‘something’ than just for nothing − a visit, coffee. How about Shabbat? We would love to have you. What are your plans for Yom Tov? Please join us. Please keep in mind all the people who love you and want to support you in any way. I’m here, if just to talk when you want to.”
The phone message taken by a friend who was screening calls during a crisis:
“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 bother her.”
Why do I find these messages supportive? First of all, they only talk about the well spouse. They empathize and acknowledge what the well spouse is going through. They don’t talk about experiencing something similar. They don’t tell them they need to be strong. They don’t tell them what to do. They just acknowledge how they feel.
Acknowledgement of how a person feels may be one of the most important means of giving support. You do not need to understand what the person is going through or even how they feel. Just to give them the message that their feelings are legitimate, justified and real can be a tremendous comfort to them. Being honest, saying you cannot imagine their pain but know it must be awful, is far better then pretending you know just how they feel.
Talk only about the person you are trying to help. It is not comforting to tell them how you experienced something similar. Do not talk about yourself. This crisis is about them. Keep their feelings in focus.
Give concrete offers of help such as real invitations to a specific place or a specific time. Shabbat meals is a good one, and if they don’t feel like company, bring their portion to them so they don’t have to bother cooking for their family on top of everything else.
Do not give them jobs to do, like calling you back just so you can speak to them. It is their world that has just turned upside down, and the last thing they need is someone giving them added responsibility − even if it is only a phone call. Let them know you understand if they don’t take your call.
Don’t give advice – particularly during a crisis. If you think you have something helpful to suggest, wait till they have adjusted to the crisis. Make sure your advice is relevant and based on fact. If you feel what you have to offer is crucial and time related, ask permission before talking. Make sure they want to hear what you have to say and are eager for the help. Otherwise, back off. Above all, you may suggest, but not tell anyone, what they have to do. It is their decision and only they will live with the results.
I found that the messages above did all of that. They acknowledged feelings, gave no advice, only talked about the family in crisis, gave specific offers of help and left no responsibility with the spouse for follow up. I found the notes and messages genuine and real. That is why I found them truly supportive. The people who sent them to me said that these messages were the ones that made them feel cared about. They saved them because of that and because they were so rare.