Five Things to do When Someone Else’s Life Goes South

It’s a new year, and everyone is figuring out how to be better. Better eating, exercise, less cursing, less chocolate…blah, blah, blah. (Seriously, less chocolate? Why?)

All are great plans, and I truly wish everyone great success. But today, I want to talk about how we can be better in one area in which we can all improve: how to better respond and truly help those around us when their lives go south.

In the past few years, six friends/family members were diagnosed with cancer, a couple had miscarriages, one suddenly lost her daughter, and recently, one friend’s husband unexpectedly died.

Without warning, all of these women were sideswiped with tragic events, and I wanted to help. This is what I’ve found to be the most productive and compassionate ways to help others when they are hurting.

1. Be available. When people are given really crappy news, they lose many friends. You may be wondering what I mean, but think about it. If a friend or coworker gets a cancer diagnosis, are you just as likely to talk to them as you did before? Are you worried that all conversations will be about their illness? their treatment? their life? Even close friends might decide it’s too hard or too stressful to talk to that person because of whatever he/she is going through.

I get how uncomfortable initiating a conversation with someone who’s been hit hard with something ugly might be for you, but think of how that person feels. He/she may truly need someone to vent or talk to to feel less alone in the world. I have a friend who told me that as soon as she got her cancer diagnosis her co-workers quit looking her in the eyes and even put their hands up to avoid eye contact. As uncomfortable and stressful as it might feel for you, don’t blow off the idea of calling to check in. Honestly, your friend may not want to have a conversation about cancer or treatment or their loss of a loved one. He/she may want to have a conversation about books or a movie or a funny story. It’s fine to talk about nothing that has to do with the sadness, and bit of talking about something else may be just what that person need. And if he/she does want to talk about hard stuff, listen. Just listen.

2. Be practical. One of the many things we humans like to do is fix things: take away the hurt, the sadness, and simply fix what’s broken. Whether it’s a diagnosis that no one ever wants to hear or the news that someone has suddenly died, know that you can’t fix it.

Now, know that you can make a painful situation worse, even with the best intentions.

Think of that scene in multiple movies where the actor or actress breaks something, then tries to fix it but only ends up making it worse. Then they try to fix it again, only to make it worse and worse until it completely falls apart. That can be any of us when we’re searching for the right words to say, which brings me to my next point.

3. Be mindful. I have a very deep faith. It’s not one I discuss freely because I don’t want to. It’s my personal relationship with God, and I like to keep it that way. But when I had a second miscarriage, one of the moms at the school said, “Well, God has a plan for everything.”

Immediately, this anger took over and I snapped back, “Oh yeah? I sure as hell would’ve liked to have known about it.” Her wide-eyed expression told me that not only had I said that out loud, but it was absolutely not the response she expected. Still, I had to give it to her. She stood there for a moment, then replied, “Yeah. You’re right.” 

Unless you know the person you’re trying to comfort really, really well and truly understand their religious beliefs, don’t say things like, “All things happen for a reason,” or “God has a plan,” or “God doesn’t give us anything we can’t handle.”

Even people with extremely strong faiths will bite back. They are grieving; their hearts and worlds have been shaken to their core. Giving them the equivalent of “sorry, but this is what it is, so just accept it the cards you’ve been dealt” may not be the best form of comfort, no matter how well intended it is.

Additionally, under no circumstances say that they must have done something wrong or they are being tested by God to deserve such a punishment (cancer, heart disease, etc). Your eyebrows probably hit your hairline on that one, but it happens all the time.

If a friend suffered a miscarriage, put in your calendar to check on her when her 20-week ultrasound or the child’s birthday would have been. Same goes for those whose partners/spouses/children have died. Anniversaries and birthdays can be hard times to get through alone.

So, what to say?

4. Be honest. Recently, my friend suddenly lost her husband. It’s hit us all hard, and she’s crushed.

When I heard the news, I hesitated in calling her because I could only imagine her heartbreak, but avoiding her (see #1) wasn’t an option. We’ve been friends for far too long for me to send a simple condolence on Facebook and think I’d fulfilled my obligation.

When I heard her voice, I knew I wouldn’t have the right words. I knew there was nothing I could say to take away the pain, shock, or anger, so I was honest. I told her I didn’t know what to say and wished I had the perfect words but didn’t.

She understood that and respected that, and though my still wanting to give her some form of comfort weighed heavy on my heart, I simply listened.
Was it a heart-breaking conversation? Absolutely. Was it a something I needed to do for her? Absolutely. Would she have asked me to call her and talk to her? Nope. But you know what? When I had my first miscarriage at 19 weeks she had the perfect response to that. She said, “Well, that sucks.” She didn’t try to fix it or tell me anything trite. She was honest and simply listened. For that, I am eternally grateful. 

And that brings me to the final tip.

5. Be proactive. Please, please, please, don’t say, “Call me if you need anything.” We’ve all said it and it’s meant with the best intentions, but let me let you in on a secret: nine times out of ten, people who’ve been given crappy news won’t call you. They don’t want to bother you or ask you to help them when they really need it because they don’t want you to feel like you have to help. They want to do as much on their own as they can without spreading their sad news and heavy hearts around. And even when they are at their most dire, most will not ask for help.

What do you say instead?

“What do you need?” It’s a specific question that they may or may not be able to answer.

A friend who was recently diagnosed with cancer, said that her neighbor offered, “I can’t cook, but I can clean your bathroom, and my husband can mow your grass.” Now that’s not only helpful, but honest and fills a need.

I’ve texted friends when I was at the grocery store and asked if they needed anything, offered to take their children home when I’m picking up mine, and called or texted every Tuesday just to see how their day is. Make sure their support system is intact, and don’t forget to check back in frequently.

There are a ton of little things that can help us better our responses and our help toward others who’ve been sideswiped by bad news. I hope these help. If you think of others, please post them. I would love to hear more about what else we can do for those in our communities and lives who are having a rough time.

Patricia W. Fischer is romance author, journalist, and retired pediatric/adult critical care nurse who’s made her homes in Texas, New Mexico, Louisiana, and Missouri. After having a fantastic time at The University of Texas (hook ’em!), she decided actually attending class would help her reach her long-term goals faster. She buckled down and in eight years earned a Licensed Vocational Nurse certification, then an Associate’s in Nursing, and finally, a Bachelor’s of Science in Journalism. During that time, Patricia worked in multiple fields of nursing, including medical/surgical, recovery room, orthopedics, telemetry (ICU step down), and critical care before she settled into the unpredictability of the emergency room. For five years, she worked in a general ER before she ended up at Children’s Medical Center of Dallas, a Level 1 Pediatric Trauma Center. She retired from nursing in 2002 and started writing full-time. She has written for many publications, including iVillage, Hot Mom’s Club, Modern Mom, Dallas Child, American Journal of Nursing, The Writer’s Edge, Nursing Spectrum, and Chicken Soup for the Soul Series. For the past two years, she’s had a monthly book picks segment on San Antonio Living, a local morning show on WOAI. She’s a member of the San Antonio Romance Authors (SARA).