What can you do for or say to someone you love who is experiencing intense emotional pain? I wish more people would ask this question because very few people actually do these things well. I am not an expert, but this is what I was looking for from my loved ones during my darkest moments:
Physical presence – Your PID (person in distress) has just had her world rocked. It has now shrunk and completely halted. She will wonder why everyone else is still living life as if it were normal. In the midst of my grief, I remember walking through public places like the grocery store and the mall in awe of everyone going about their mundane business. I wanted to shake them and say, “Don’t you know what just happened to me?!? How can you possibly be buying laundry detergent and milk right now?”. I wanted people to share my pain with me. I felt alone and harshly selected to bear the heaviness of the whole world while everyone else skipped weightlessly throughout their day. I was in a box watching life go on. I was desperate for someone else to GET IN THE BOX WITH ME. Anyone. Just be there for your person. SHOW UP. Bring a sandwich. She probably won’t eat it, but bring it anyway. Bring a book. It might be awhile before she can come close enough to the surface to digest a book, but bring it anyway. Sit with her. Make her bed. Tidy up her living room. Walk her dog. Pour her tea. Just be present. If you can’t show up, then call. She will probably not answer the phone. Leave a message. If you are sincere and loving and real, then she will listen to that message over and over again.
No questions – Your PID hardly even knows her name right now. Questions cause more stress. Things like, “What are you going to do now?” or “How can I help?” are broad and overwhelming. Don’t overwhelm her. Don’t ask lame questions to fill the space. Let your love and your presence fill the space. Give her your air to breathe. Be generous with your air; she’s having trouble breathing right now. If she feels like talking, then just listen. Don’t offer an opinion or advice or an “I know someone else who” story. God, those are the worst. They are the worst and I STILL find myself telling them when I am trying to be there for a PID! This is how hard it is to be there for someone. It is so very hard. But, do it anyways.
If you have to say something then tell her she is loved and that she can do this – And by “this” I mean, drink the tea you give her or move from the bed to the couch. THIS is whatever the next move is. Your PID is the weakest she has ever been. She can barely even change her pajamas or brush her teeth. She does not think she can do anything remotely as difficult as overcome whatever massive grief or challenge she is facing. She just needs a gentle reminder that she can do the next thing. She is loved, she is not alone, and she can do this. Make eye contact with her when you say it. She needs to know you believe it and that you’re not just saying it because you think it’s what you are supposed to say.
Don’t put a time limit on her grief – This is so important. I think it is the most important of all. You cannot decide when her grief should end and when it is time to move on. You are going to want to because the pain is too much and you don’t think you can watch the suffering for another minute. But, don’t do that. Her grief will not stop when you’ve decided it’s time. The time to move on is deeply personal and she is the only one who has access to this classified information. And she doesn’t know ahead of time, so don’t ask. If you try to prematurely end the grief, you will isolate her and leave her to grieve alone. I’m telling you, this is the hardest one. We want to make it all better for our PIDs. We want to walk in, say something really profound and healing, and leave knowing that everything is back to normal again. It just does not work that way.
This is all there is to it. Since we like to complicate everything, this is so simple, it’s hard. Show up. Sit with her. Give her a hug. Make her a cup of tea. Listen. Tell her you love her. Listen. Be generous with your air. Clean her house. Listen. Be a safe, soft space. She’s doing very deep, holy work in this moment and you have the privilege to hold vigil with her. Do it. And then come back and do it again.