I came across an interesting essay in yesterday’s New York Times, “Coping with Crises Close to Someone Else’s Heart” by Harriett Brown. Brown’s piece describes the often puzzling changes that occur in personal relationships after one side of the friendship goes through a tragedy or traumatic personal event. I certainly related to her observations – not only as a “suicide survivor”, but also as a friend to people who experienced personal crises of their own.
When I look back over my friends’ and co-workers’ reactions when they learned of my brother’s death, I was undoubtedly shown tremendous kindness and compassion, even from people I didn’t know very well. As unsure as everyone was about how to react and respond to what I was going through, I was also unsure about how I wanted everyone else to act towards me – especially as suicide is such a sensitive topic to deal with. I had friends who left countless voice mails and emails that I would rarely, if ever, respond to – not because I didn’t want to talk to them or I didn’t appreciate their outreach, but rather I simply didn’t want to dwell in my tragedy or my emotions any more than I already was forced to on a day-to-day basis. At the same time, I remember being annoyed at certain friends who made no effort to reach out to me, not because I wanted to talk to them, but rather just to know that they were out there and understood how absolutely lost I was feeling.
So putting the shoe on the other foot and thinking about how I responded when my friends were going through challenging times of their own, to be honest (especially after reflecting on my tragedy and Brown’s essay), I think I could have been (and hopefully still can be) a better friend. While I always ask, “Is there anything I can do?” – and I absolutely mean it – people rarely come back with a list of items or requests. Maybe I should have been more aggressive, asking if I could bring over dinner (or a bottle of wine to share), calling to check up on them, or even demonstrating even months later that I understand that they are still going through the healing process and may continue to need a support system or a shoulder to cry on.
I think that’s the hardest thing about going through a crisis – everyone else reacts when they hear the news and for a certain period of time following … then it’s just not a part of their lives or thinking anymore (nor should it be!). Be it grieving for a lost loved one, managing a chronic disease or other medical situation, continuing to worry about a dire financial situation – once everyone else has forgotten and moved on, the pain remains very, very real each and every day to the person affected.
Brown quotes Jackson Rainer, a professor of psychology at Georgia Southern University who has studied grief and relationships, who advises that if you really want to help a family in crisis, offer to do something specific: drive the carpool, weed the garden, bring a meal, do the laundry, go for a walk. I like that guidance, and if I may add my own $.02, remind everyone to take it one step further – remember that even days, weeks or months after the funeral / operation / foreclosure / divorce etc., your friend may still be in need.
To go back to wearing the “survivor” shoe – no, I’m not asking you all to show up on my doorstep with a bottle of wine to share … but I wouldn’t turn you away if you did!