Note from Carolyn: This guest post is republished here with the kind permission of its original author Marilyn Gardner, who writes on Communicating Without Boundaries about cross-cultural communication, with an emphasis on faith and third culture kids. Marilyn grew up in Pakistan, lived and worked in Pakistan and Egypt as an adult, and moved to the United States where she is learning to live away from curry, Urdu, Arabic and the Pyramids. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, 15 minutes from the international terminal where she flies to the Middle East and Pakistan as often as possible.
Despite the pervasive popularity of the following cliché reassurances, Marilyn asks that you please leave the following well-meaning but unhelpful platitudes at home whenever you’re trying to comfort a person who is suffering during any kind of personal crisis – including a cardiac emergency:
- God will never give you more than you can handle. While some may believe it is theologically correct, depending on your definitions, it is singularly unhelpful to the person who is neck-deep in a crisis, trying to swim against a Tsunami. A wonderful phrase recently came from Support for Special Needs. They suggest changing this from “God will never give you more than you can handle” to “Let me come over and help you do some laundry.” This strikes me as even more theologically correct.
- It gets better. Yes, yes it does. But right then, it’s not better. And before it gets better, it may get way worse.
- When God shuts a door, he opens a window. Maybe, but maybe not. Maybe he just shuts a door. Maybe there is no window. There was no window for Job. There was a cosmic battle that raged as he sat in distress. There might not be a window. And if Job’s friends had kept their silence, perhaps God would not have told Job to pray for them at the end of the narrative.
- Did you pray about it? Again – theologically correct. “Don’t worry about anything, instead, pray about everything…” but in a crisis, you don’t heap guilt onto pain and suffering. At a time of deep pain in my life, someone said this to me. I looked at him in silence, and then with a shaky voice I said: “We haven’t been able to pray in three months–so no, we haven’t prayed about it.” I was in so much pain– it was like he had slapped me. Pray for the person, but please, please leave the clichés at home.
- God is good – all the time. Another one that is technically theologically correct. But is it helpful to say this when someone has just lost a child and is screaming at Heaven? Is it helpful to say this to the person who just had their fifth miscarriage? Is it helpful to say this to the woman going through a divorce, because her marriage could not hold up under the stress of a special needs child? They may say it, and we can nod our heads in agreement. But for us to say this from a place that is calm and safe will probably not be helpful.
- There but for the grace of God go I. “But why you? Why do you get that grace and not me? Why am I the one in the crisis? Was God’s grace withheld from me?” Those are valid responses to that phrase. I understand the phrase, and I’ve used it myself, but it doesn’t help the person who is in deep pain.
- Don’t worry. God’s in Charge. Yeah? Well, he’s not doing a very good job then, is he? God is in control, but it brings up some serious theological implications about God’s role in the crisis. Instead of a theology of suffering, we might want to think about a fellowship of suffering. Because a fellowship of suffering leads me to sit with a person and say: “It’s too much to bear – may I sit with you and bear it with you?”
- Maybe God needed to get your attention. Thank God no one ever said this to me during times of crisis – because I might have to punch them in the face with a knife. That’s all.
- Maybe this happened for a reason. Remember what I said about punching someone in the face with a knife? Yeah – that.
- Just call me if you need anything. While I want to appreciate this, the fact is that people in crisis usually don’t have the ability to call, so they won’t. Even if you don’t know someone well, you can bring them a meal or drive them somewhere.
- I could never go through what you’re going through. Come again, my friend?? This does not comfort. A false elevation of the character and ability to cope of the person going through the crisis only serves to further wound and isolate. The one who is going through a crisis longs to be on the other side. They wake up and breathe deeply, only to remember the awful reality of their situation, and wish they didn’t have to go through it.
- When I think of your situation, I’m reminded how blessed I am. No. No. No. First off, this is theologically completely incorrect. The beatitudes heap blessing on those that mourn, on those who are meek, on those who are poor in spirit — not on those who are safe, secure, financially stable, and proud. Those in crisis are not an illustration of how blessed everyone else is. In the counter intuitive, upside down way of the Kingdom of God, blessing looks completely different than what we in the West have made it to mean. There are big problems with our use of the word and concept of blessing.
So what do we do? How do we respond?
I think those are difficult questions, but the best analogy I have for people in acute crisis is looking at them as burn victims.
Caring for burn victims is divided into three stages that overlap.
The first is the emergent or resuscitative stage. At this stage, priority is given to removing the person from the source of the burn and stopping the burning process. The big things to think about are fluid replacement, nutrition, and pain management. Translated into crisis care, this means we’ll bring meals, coffee money, and pick up children from day care.
The second stage is the acute or wound healing stage. At this stage, the body is trying to reach a state of balance, while remaining free from infection. During this stage, patients can become withdrawn, combative, or agitated. This stage can be a lengthy and unpredictable stage. Burn victims, like people in crisis, often lash out at those closest to them. Translate this into listening, listening, and listening some more.
The final stage is the rehabilitative or restorative stage. The goal at this stage is for a patient to resume a functional role within their family and community. Reconstruction surgery may be needed. Encouragement and reassurance are critical to the person at this stage. This would translate into going on walks with the person, taking them out to a movie or dinner, having them over for coffee or a meal.
Burn care has a lot to teach us about loving and caring for people in crisis. And those who care for burn victims rarely use clichés — they are too busy caring.
In February, I wrote a piece called Toward a Fellowship of Suffering, and I’ll end what could be a cynical post with words from that piece:
“There is something about suffering that longs for someone to sit with us through the pain. It’s the fellowship of suffering. It’s the words ‘you are not alone’ put into action. The sitting bears witness to our pain. More than a card or a casserole, the familiar, patient presence of another says to us: ‘It’s too much for you to bear, but I will be with you, I will sit with you.’ ”
© 2015 Marilyn R. Gardner
Q: What have you found to be most helpful from others when you’ve been in mid-crisis?
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- 10 helpful things to say to a sick friend
- Empathy 101: how to sound like you give a damn
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