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When You Don’t Know What To Do (Part One)

In a crisis, few of us know how to act. We desperately want to help, but we are afraid of overstepping or intruding where we shouldn’t. Knowing that everyone reacts to a crisis differently makes knowing what to do and how to help even more difficult. Many of us choose the option of doing nothing, or we put the onus on the family by saying, ‘Let me know if I can help.’ That is safer than doing the wrong thing, after all. But doing nothing leaves the people in crisis feeling alone and uncared for.

Several well spouses told me stories about friends who helped. They helped when these spouses were juggling occasions of joy and sorrow that happened concurrently. (This happens more often than I realized in houses where chronic illness lurks).

They helped in such a way that these well spouses were comfortable accepting the help. Their actions may serve as models for any of us who want to be there for our friends, but don’t know what to say or do.

When Shana Chana’s chronically ill husband’s condition worsened, just days before a simcha was about to take place, she didn’t know where to turn first. Her very pregnant daughter and her two toddler grandchildren had already arrived from out of town and were staying with her. When the call came that her husband had been taken to the hospital, Shana Chana wanted her daughter with her. Her daughter wanted to be there as well. They called a friend, Margo, who had several teen-age children at home to ask if someone could watch the children while they ran down to the hospital.

Margo arrived out of breath before they had time to even put on their coats! She assured them that the grandchildren would be taken care of all day. Margo would stay here for a bit, since the children were more familiar with their grandmother’s house. Later, as they became more comfortable with her, she’d take them to her house and her children would play with them and keep them occupied. This could easily be all day and all night if necessary.

Free from concern about the children, mother and daughter ran to the hospital. They were there about 45 minutes, when the daughter went to call to check on the children. Outside the hospital room she found Harold, Margo’s husband. Harold had not wanted to intrude by coming in, so he simply waited outside the hospital room to see if it was all right to be there and see what he could do to help.

Shana Chana was grateful for the support. Harold helped them collect the husband’s personal belongings that could not stay in the hospital and took them to his car. He brought coffee and as the situation stabilized, he said directly and simply, “Let’s discuss your needs and see where I can plug in.”

Shana Chana’s main concern was Shabbos. It was Friday morning. On the one hand, she did not want to leave her daughter alone over Shabbos. What if she went into labor? On the other hand, she did not want to leave her husband alone in the ICU, since she wasn’t sure if he even knew where he was or what happened to him. He needed to see someone he knew when he awoke.

Harold solved the problem. He offered to stay at the ICU all of Shabbos so that Shana Chana could be with her daughter. He would stay until after Shabbos when Shana Chana and her daughter would return. And, he said, his wife was making them Shabbos meals so they could be here all Friday, if they wished.

Shana Chana got through that first day more easily with the help of Harold and Margo. Harold had helped her to zero in on her immediate needs and helped her solve her immediate dilemmas. He helped her see that everything else could wait until after Shabbos when the situation would hopefully stabilize.

By asking her what were her immediate needs and concerns, Harold helped her get through the haze that seems to cloud our minds in a crisis. Margo took care of the tasks that needed doing.

When a crisis strikes, it is difficult to sort through which of the many things that need doing take priority. When having a simcha is one of those things in the mix, emotions make functioning almost impossible.

Having someone help you define what is urgent, what you need to deal with immediately, and then help you do it, is a great support. But it is only the first step. It enables you to deal more sanely with all the tasks that are next, but can wait till tomorrow.

When Shana Chana got home, there were two messages on her machine. One said, ‘Hi. Please call me to let me know how things are and let me know if I can help.’ The other said, ‘My 13 and 15 year old daughters will be coming to your house at 2 p.m. on Shabbos afternoon to occupy the children so that you and your daughter can sleep or just rest. If this time isn’t good, call back with another, otherwise they’ll be there at two.’ Which of these two positive messages would you want to hear? Which one would you use more freely? Which one requires nothing of you but acceptance? More examples next week.

(To be continued)

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More Articles from Ann Novick

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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