We’ve all been there.
The words hit you like a sucker punch right in your gut. Sometimes it’s “I got the results back …. it’s cancer.” Sometimes it’s “Jack and I are getting a divorce – I found out that he cheated on me.” Sometimes it’s “my mom didn’t make it out of surgery.”
Hearing that someone you love is in crisis drops you to your knees. This is someone whose heart resonates with yours. You’ve laughed over Bridesmaids and Ace Ventura together. You’ve shared the excitement of new love and shared tales of failure over pints of Cherry Garcia ice cream. And now they’re hurting, and your heart feels like it just got stuffed with barbed wire right along with them.
The only thing you can think to say is “ohmigawd, are you serious?’
Then you wonder what do I do? What do I say? What if I say the wrong thing and just make it worse?
I get it. I know I’ve put my foot in my mouth more times than I’d like to admit when someone I love tells me something that spins me right ‘round and drops me on the floor. And when you’re in that situation, struggling to find the words and as though the breath has been knocked right outta ya, it feels a bit like being tossed on to a wild mountainside…being battered by a howling, cold, and unforgiving wind.
And your friend in crisis is at the peak of that gargantuan and relentless mountaintop.
Look up (wayyy up) and you’ll see that they’re up there alone. It’s a lonely, heart-wrenching, and sometimes infuriating place to be. Someone standing up there on that mountain is going to be feeling a whole fuckton of emotions that might include rage, pain, heartbreak, jealousy, bitterness or just straight up hopelessness. It’s their sacred place to scream at the top of their lungs to the heavens above ‘Why me?!? Why now?! I hate this!!!’ If they need to kick, cry, or throw things, that’s all encouraged too. The top of that mountain is absolutely a no judgement zone. It’s their place to shout and rail and get it all out any way they need to … and it’s not your place. Not now.
I’m saying this with big big love: The best way to help someone in crisis is to know your place.
Think of the mountain like a topographical map. The person you love is at the peak, then the concentric circles that show the various elevations of the mountains are where ‘their people’ are. Their partner or bestie is likely in the first circle, then their parents and other close friends in the next circle. Then perhaps their co-workers, family friends, and so on, further and further down the mountain. But basically, their nearest and dearest, their most intimate circles are with them near the top. As they should be, those people are their biggest support. If that includes you, try to remember one thing …
You can’t scream uphill.
If you have ever climbed up anything bigger than you, you know how hard it is to speak/scream uphill to someone. I’m not even talking Everest here. If you’ve ever tried to walk up a hill on a windy day with someone, you know what I mean. And that’s what you have to remember when someone is in crisis.
Chances are seeing someone you love in emotional agony is having an effect on you. That’s normal. You’re a deeply feeling human being, so of course you hurt when those you love hurt. You might find that you too are asking “why is this happening right now?!” and feeling like you don’t know how to cope. That’s ok. It’s totally natural. Let yourself feel it.
However, you can’t scream those things uphill. You don’t have the privilege of yelling ‘why me’ or ‘I hate this’. Nope. You’re not at the top of that mountain – they are. If you need support too – and that’s totally ok and kudos to you for recognizing it – ask YOUR support people. Talk to your inner circle, your partner or your closest friends. But your friend on top of the mountain? Right now, they’re not in a place to deal with your feelings on top of their own, so don’t shout uphill at them.
Simply show your support.
I know it’s hard to know what to say. Sometimes you’re struggling for the right words and honestly you really just want to show that you get it, to somehow help them to feel better. But with the best of intentions that can come out looking like this:
“That’s nothing! My sister-in-law’s cousin got left at the altar AND had to pay for all the food that didn’t get eaten!”
“Hey, it’s for the best! Plenty more fish in the sea, right?”
I know your intentions are loving and kind, but the person you love who’s in crisis doesn’t need to hear those things. It’s not a suffering competition or a race to the bottom. And they definitely don’t need platitudes, no matter how well intentioned.
So try this instead. Tell them ‘I’m with you. I love you.’ or ‘I don’t know what to say but I’m here for you.’
Let that be enough, because IT IS enough. Empathize. Listen. Be a strong shoulder and a soft landing. Empathy is often all we need when we’re in crisis – to feel seen and heard and to know that we’re being supported and loved through the pain. So don’t get tripped up on what to say, just be there and hold space for them…which may mean cranking out those funny movies again or stocking up on ice cream.
And remember: It’s never too late to show support. If you didn’t reach out straight away, do it now. Let them know you care. There’s never a bad time to tell someone you’re there for them.
I love what my fellow Canuck, Holly Cole, has to say about being there for a loved one in crisis. If you’re feeling stuck for how to help, let her words guide you.
“Well it’s empty and it’s ugly and it’s terribly sad, I can’t feel what you feel, but I know it feels bad. I know that it’s real and it makes you so mad. You can cry if you want to. Cry if you want to. I won’t tell you not to, I won’t try to cheer you up, I’ll just here if you want me, to be, near you.”