Helping in times of crisis: the do’s and don’ts

When Mary Lou’s husband had a serious cancer scare five years ago, the family was thrown into crisis. After having emergency back surgery for a spinal condition, her husband began experiencing night sweats and weight loss — 20 pounds in three weeks — and was rapidly declining.

On top of the fear that gripped Mary Lou and her seven children, she had to think practically and consider what would happen if her husband was never able to work again or, worse, if he died. With so much on her shoulders, she was barely able to hold up. But she did, because of the way family and friends reached out to her.

What helped the most, she said, was that others stepped forward with specific ways they could lend support, especially in terms of their prayers.

“Friends would call with specific ways that they had prayed for us,” Mary Lou said. “They’d let me know that they’d offered their Mass or Holy Hour for us that day, or another would say that every sacrifice would be offered for my family that day. We all say, ‘I’ll pray for you,’ but I gained so much strength from knowing just how and when others were praying for me.”

Power of observation

In addition to lending spiritual support, Mary Lou recommends that concerned family and friends be observers. Often, she said, people in crisis don’t themselves know what they really need. Even if they do know, many find it difficult to ask. Also, people in crisis can be reticent to admit that they need help, and end up saying “no” to help out of pride or embarrassment. With careful observation, family and friends can discover the needs and fill them without having to be asked.

For example, during her husband’s illness, Mary Lou’s boss called a local pizza parlor and had pizza delivered to the family so she wouldn’t have to cook dinner. This is something for which she never would have thought to ask.

“I had friends ask me if they could cook dinner for me, and I would say ‘no.’ Then, 5 o’clock would roll around and I’d be standing in front of the refrigerator crying because I didn’t know what to do about dinner,” she said. “It all comes down to paying attention to what is needed and then filling those needs.”

Parents can be particularly instrumental in helping their children through crisis, even after they’ve reached adulthood.

When Dylan was 29, he experienced a manic episode while visiting a friend in another state, worsened by the alcohol he’d consumed while they were having dinner together one night. He lost his sense of reality and his behavior became erratic. He started wandering the streets, unable to sleep. He was out of control and it became clear that he needed to go home, yet was unable to make it there on his own.

Dylan’s friend contacted his parents in his home state. They immediately dropped what they were doing, purchased two airline tickets, flew out to get him, and brought him back home. They admitted Dylan to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with bipolar affective disorder (formerly known as manic depression) and prescribed medication that would stabilize him. Since then, he hasn’t had another episode.

Emotional support

Along with practical support, emotional support is essential for people in crisis, said Dr. Peter Kleponis, a Catholic clinical psychologist practicing near Philadelphia. The main task of anyone wanting to help another in crisis is to walk with them during the rough times.

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He learned this years ago while he was in training. He had a job as a dining room attendant in a nursing home. One of the residents, Valerie, was in her early 50s and suffered from multiple sclerosis. On a hunch, Dr. Kleponis asked her what it was like to have MS. She was as shocked at his question as he was at her answer. No one had ever asked her that question before.

“It amazed me how she was really able to open up after that,” he said. “Being with another person going through a hard time — just sitting and listening to them — can do so much good. You may not be able to fix their problems, you may not be able to heal their disease, but you will heal their spirit and soul.”

Dr. Kleponis acknowledged that we take a risk when we ask others in crisis to share with us about their situation, but it’s a risk worth taking. “You can’t always know what to expect. They may break down crying,” he said. “Hand them a tissue and let them say whatever it is that they need to say. The main point is to be there for them.”

Importance of listening

Kathleen Connell, a Catholic professional clinical counselor, agrees that patient, non-judgmental listening is the best way to help others in crisis. She advises maintaining eye contact while listening, and reflecting back to the person what you hear, using phrases such as, “Are you saying…?”

Be comfortable with silence, allow people in crisis to process their feelings, and let them cry if they need to. Offer encouragement with prompts, such as, “How did you feel about that?”

The greatest gift we can give anyone in crisis, said Dr. Gregory Bottaro, a Catholic psychologist practicing in New York, is the gift of self. We can do that by exercising empathy. “Empathy is the process of trying to really feel what the other person feels, through communication. When a person feels heard, really understood, there can be a great feeling of relief and even healing. Much of the suffering experienced by people includes a sense of isolation, and so listening in such a way can help alleviate this isolation,” he said.

What happens when the circumstances become more than we can handle? The worst thing to do, according to the professionals interviewed for this article, is to back off unannounced. Rather, be honest with the individual and explain that, while you are still there for him or her, you aren’t able to solve problems.

Dr. Kleponis suggested saying something like, “You have so much on your mind and heart, perhaps you need someone who is equipped to handle your dilemma.” Then, he said, become a resource person. Find a therapist who can help and refer the person in crisis. Parishes can be a good place to start, since most keep lists of helping professionals.

Sometimes, the person in crisis resists help. In that case, advised Connell, continue the relationship and engage in normal conversation until he or she feels comfortable enough to share more deeply and accept help. “Do ‘normal’ things with him,” Connell told OSV, “such as going for a walk. If possible, alleviate other stressors in the person’s life so that he is not feeling overwhelmed, like picking up children from activities or bringing over a meal.”

Small acts of kindness

Often, it’s the spontaneous acts of kindness that have the biggest impact on people in crisis. Heidi knows this first hand. Three weeks after becoming a foster mom to three siblings, she ventured out of the house to attend a Catholic mom’s meeting, a heavy pack on her back, the baby strapped to her front, and a child in each hand. She was exhausted, having had only two hours of sleep in the last several days.

When she got to the church, the 4-year-old was screaming to use the potty, but the church door was locked. As the child relieved herself on the sidewalk, Heidi fell apart and began to sob. Seemingly out of nowhere, a grandmotherly woman appeared, took the little girl by the hand, grabbed the heavy backpack from Heidi, and led all of them into the parish office. There she offered Heidi a seat and a cup of tea and then pottied and changed all three of the children.

“I’ll never forget that intervention of kindness,” Heidi recalled. “When I think back on those days, it was the kindness of this ‘non-professional social worker’ who made the biggest difference in my life.” 

Marge Fenelon is the author of “Imitating Mary: Ten Marian Virtues for the Modern Mom” (Ave Maria, $14.95). She writes from Wisconsin.