Kenneth Carter Ph.D.

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Friends in Crisis: What to Do When You Don’t Know What to Do

How to help a loved one in need when you are blindsided.

Posted Sep 17, 2019

Ding! Oh... a text.

“Hey, in about three days, I’m going to need some help with an overwhelming event. I’m going to be diagnosed with a serious illness, and I’ll have no idea what to do. I’ll be devastated, and I’m really going to need your help. I wanted to give you a heads up, so you could have some time to think about it, clear your head and your schedule. Then I’ll need you to come up with the perfect response to make me feel better and for you to feel like a perfect friend.”

You’ll never get a text like that.

When tragedy strikes someone you love (and unfortunately it will), it comes suddenly and hard. Most likely, it will knock you off your feet (not to mention what it will do to your loved ones).

Sometimes you’ll have no idea what to say or what to do. You’ll feel helpless. As a psychologist, I have years of training in helping people through tragedy and struggles. But sometimes all that flies out the window. There are times when my friends reach out to me, and I have no idea what to do.

I remember when I was a second-year clinical psychology student at the University of Michigan. One day, after a particularly chaotic session, I went to my clinical supervisor hoping for some advice about what I should have said to my client. My supervisor provided an option, and I remember scribbling it down so that next time it happened, I would know exactly what to say. I wanted a formula.

Thing is... life doesn’t work in formulas. You never know when a tragedy is coming on, and sometimes you aren’t really prepared to know exactly what your client or loved one will need. But there are some things that, more often than not, will help. Here’s your cheat-sheet of five tips to keep in mind when you don’t know what to do to help out a friend in crisis.

1. Be patient: Keep your feelings in check.

Sometimes you will be focused on wanting the other person to feel better or to take away their pain. In some ways, this is because you are in pain because they are in pain. Listen and give the other person a chance to express what they need to express without judgment.

Psychologists call this emotion-focused coping rather than a problem or solution-focused coping. You may be ready to offer up a solution, but they might not be ready to hear one yet.

2. Give me a break!

Even if a loved one comes to you with a problem or concern, it doesn’t mean they want to talk about it all the time. Sometimes they want to be distracted from their crisis. Humor can be helpful. Maybe it’s a piece of funny news, a favorite video, or even or a random joke. 

3. Show up.

Be present. Acknowledge that they are going through something difficult and that you are there for them. Just being there for a friend can be comforting.

At the time, you might not feel as if you are doing anything significant. However, having someone around when you are going through a painful experience can be incredibly supportive. For chronic events like grief or long illnesses, it can be even more important in the weeks and months to come. Be sure to continue to check in as time goes by. 

4. Be specific with your help

“Is there anything I can do to help?" is something most everyone asks when a friend is having a hard time. Asking to help is useful, but if there are specific things you do for them, offer that. Do you bake cookies? Can you drive them someplace? Take them out to eat? But be flexible if they change their mind.

5. Care for yourself.

And don’t forget to take care of yourself. It’s important to remember that your loved one's emotions can trigger your emotions too. Anger, grief, depression, and anxiety can create negative emotions in the people who are around these emotions. If you find that you are the emotional caretaker for lots of people, be sure to look for signs of caregiver burnout in yourself, such as withdrawal, emotional exhaustion, and changes and sleep patterns. 

So, you might not get a text to warn you ahead of time, but if you are in a situation where a loved one is in need, and you aren’t sure what to do, keep these five things in mind, and you'll be pointed in the right direction. 

©2019, Kenneth Carter. All rights reserved