What to Say When Someone is in Crisis: PART THREE

May 6, 2013
Explore how people experience being in the middle of a crisis and how to respond to someone who does not seem to want support

Model of what to say when someone is in crisisIn the post of April 29, I discussed an article from the Los Angeles Times called “How Not to Say the Wrong Thing” when a friend is dealing with a difficult situation.

This is the third and final post on that topic. Here I discuss how our personalities and experiences help determine how someone responds to the experience of a crisis. Also, I explore what can happen when someone does not want to talk about their crisis.

Just as our personalities and experiences help determine how we respond to someone who is going through a crisis, when we ourselves are in the middle of a crisis, we each respond in our own unique way.

When You Are in Crisis and in the Center of the Circle

There are thousands of things that would place you in the center of the circle. They range from the diagnosis of a terminal illness to the death of a child; from a request for a divorce that is totally unexpected to a house swept away by a flood, from sudden blindness to loss of a job in a bad economy.

Whenever life throws something at you that you weren’t prepared for, or don’t have the resources to handle, your life has been turned upside down. You want to grab onto anything that can help turn you right-side-up again.

In fact, in such circumstances it’s not unusual if you would want your mother. Not in the literal sense, of course, though that might sometimes be exactly what you would like. But you would definitely want someone who could take away your hurt, tell you it’s going to be all right, assure you that things will soon be better.

Why Has This Happened To You?

When you have been thrown into a crisis, you are overcome with all kinds of emotions: anger, guilt, grief, and a sense that life has betrayed you. You were good, weren’t you? You did what you were supposed to do. Why hasn’t life turned out the way you expected? And like many people, you may even be angry with God for bringing you a tragedy when you’ve done your best.

On the other hand, you may be one of those whose faith will pull you through. You assume that whatever has thrown you off your stride is part of God’s plan. You may not enjoy where you are, but you are comforted in believing where you are now is where God wants you.

However, if you are a person who believes you are the cause (or co-creator) of everything that happens to you — a perspective on life that has become popular with books like The Secret — you may be very hard on yourself. You might ask questions like, “Why did I create this?” “What did I do wrong in my past life?” The more rigidly you accept responsibility for your disaster, the more difficult it may be to step back and notice whether this is just something that happens to members of the human race from time to time.

No matter what your beliefs, you may still ask yourself whether there is something you could have, should have, done to prevent the situation in which you find yourself. If you have lung cancer and have smoked two packs a day for twenty years, the connection between your actions and your health is fairly clear. On the other hand, I knew a lovely lady who never smoked a single cigarette and died of lung cancer.

Perhaps the best way to approach illness (and other crises) is to recognize that there is a place between believing “illness drops down from the sky” and “I am responsible for everything that happens to my body.”

Your Reaction to Your Crisis

First of all, remember that how you get through your crisis will depend on many factors. For example, a happily married woman is likely to tolerate breast cancer better than someone who is looking for a husband. A wife without children whose husband had good life insurance will have less to worry about when her husband dies than one who has six children and no insurance. A fire that destroys a house will be more traumatic for someone who is thirty-six and has had a very easy life so far, than someone who is sixty-six and has successfully dealt with many of life’s trials and tribulations.

Nevertheless, no matter what has happened to you up to this point in time, you will deal with what you have to deal with and will find inner strength and resources you probably never knew you had. So hang on, take one step at a time, and do the best you can.

And when you have gone through the storms of life, tossed and turned in ways you hadn’t expected, you can empathize with others when the winds begin to blow.

How Your Friends and Family Can Support You

Your friends want to help. When they say, “Let me know what you need,” you may not know what to say. But be assured that they are standing ready to help. In your first days of dealing with your crisis, you may need to brainstorm with a friend about you can help with what when everything seems so overwhelming.

Then, be grateful for all those who show their support, and remember that your friends are doing the best they can.

However, not many of us suffer fools gladly and it is more difficult when we’re under stress. People can mean well, but also make life difficult for you at this time. If you don’t want a certain person to bother you because it will take more energy than you have to give, forgive her for being who she is and find a way to tell her to back off.

Beginning and Ending Each Day

Especially during times of crises, I have found a technique that seems to help contain each day’s quota of stress. It goes like this:

Begin the day by holding your arms above your head with your palms up and say, “I am willing to do whatever I need to do to get through today. I accept the support of others in the spirit in which it is given.”

End the day by holding your arms down at your sides and imagining the events of the day flowing off you as you say, “I have done my best and now I let go of those things I may not have done as well as I would have liked. I am grateful for the help others have given me. Tomorrow is another day.”

What Can You Do When the Person in Crisis Won’t Accept Support From You?

I have a very good friend who recently had an operation on a tumor that could not be completely removed and there are no other treatment options. Unfortunately for her friends and family, including her parents, she is not willing to share the results of the biopsy. If it weren’t cancer, we believe she let us know the good news.

Why isn’t she letting us know? I imagine it is simply a reflection of her personality. She is friendly, kind, talented, a great mother — and reserved: Not telling us about the diagnosis is consistent with her personality.

If she doesn’t talk about her emotions when she is not in crisis, it doesn’t surprise me that she is hesitant to share her feelings now. She may simply be one of those people who need to take time to absorb bad news before exposing herself to the reaction of others.

If I were in that situation, I would talk to people — my childhood nickname was “Breezy.” I would want to get support from friends and family and even the grocery clerk. That is not her approach.

So while I would like to talk with her about this, I think of how she must be feeling and my heart goes out to her. If she is having such a hard time dealing with this that she can’t even talk about it with family, who am I to say she must?

Therefore, I do exactly what the circle theory suggests. I send my love in to her at the center of the circle and stay away from conversations with her that might raise the subject of the elephant in the room before she is ready. And when I think about my sadness in most likely losing her sooner than I would like, I call one of my friends, either in the circle in which I see myself or in one farther out. They let me cry and I find comfort.

It is important that we don’t demand people be who they are not. It is important we don’t ask them to share or talk about something they are not ready to share or talk about. I accept her just as she is, not as someone I think she “should” be; someone who would let us into her emotional center.

She is doing the best she can.


Did you enjoy this post?
Here are a some related posts from this blog, and articles from the Support4Change website:


5 thoughts on “What to Say When Someone is in Crisis: PART THREE

  1. Personally, I have often – nearly always – struggled for asking for support. It is a lonely position to believe that putting on your Big Girl Pants includes figuring out how to navigate the world solo. Not being sure where that sense of responsibility originated, I don’t know if when I asked for what I needed it was denied often enough I no longer asked, or if I tend to draw superficial people to me. No matter what I’m going through I usually feel no one else can possibly understand some of the situations that have come through my life. When they say, “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle” I can easily hiss, “I wish (s)he didn’t trust me so much!

    “What does not kill you makes you stronger” is one of my least favorite terms that people love to quote, as usually they slink away thinking they have now pronounced some great truism and have now delivered the wisdom from their mountaintop perch. I’d love to know how to ask more often, but I am blessed to have a small collection of those I know are there, and bless every time they respond. Good piece!


    1. Thank you for your thoughtful response. You have given me an idea for two different topics.

      One is that of how to ask for help. Maybe I could suggest readers send in the best techniques they have used or have been used by others to get the help they need.
      The other post will be about sayings that don’t make sense, like “the exception proves the rule” when obviously the exception DISPROVES the rule. I think people just like to say pithy statements to sound as though they know what’s going on. It’s easier to feel that way than to feel incompetent.

      I used to have a feature called Words of Impact and Encouragement but somehow I let it drop when I went from one format of Support4Change to another. You’ve given me the idea to resurrect the idea.



  2. Thank you for this inspired and inspiring series. This stuff is NOT just “common sense” and I got many helpful tips from your guidelines. Furthermore, I see additional applications for lists like the various types of people and how they respond.

    I can think of only one consideration that didn’t quite factor in, and could be huge: what’s the protocol when two people are in crisis at the same time? That’s not so difficult to fathom when they share the crisis, but let’s say one friend is having chemo and the other just lost a spouse. Each wants to support the other, but energy is limited and “circle protocol” prevent them from dumping on one another.

    Also, I have a close friend who has been in one crisis or another for several years. She has occasionally expressed dismay that I have shielded her from so much info about my own smaller tribulations. “That’s what friends are for, and I need to hear about life outside my circle of misery to avoid losing it completely!”

    Especially in circles of aging friends, this is not an uncommon scenario! Also, these two people in crisis are likely to share support groups.

    Finally, this is not directly related to your current stream of discussion, but the letter you included in the first post alluded to a certain degree of self-responsibility for the Center Person for screening who to “let in” at all. That is another juicy topic, should you care to pursue it.

    Sounds like you have fodder for an entire book here!


    1. Thanks for your comment.

      If we isolate people who are going through a tough time, it may feel to them that we don’t think they are strong enough to handle more bad information. But if we aren’t asking them to solve the problem but only to feel included in the lives of people around them, I think there is nothing wrong with sharing news about a crisis in someone else’s life.

      I do know that when a child has died that the parents too often divorce, because they needed each other and there wasn’t enough energy to give when their own need felt so great. Other times, tragedy can bring a couple closer together.


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