This is a great primer on how to help when things go seriously wrong for other people in your life. It’s largely aimed at those who want to reach out and help but don’t know how, but in its discussions of what is and isn’t helpful when someone is suffering, I suspect it would be helpful to most people. We tend to learn what to say in the face of other people’s distress from the things other people have said to us or in our presence, much of which isn’t actually helpful.
This book will help you with that, and it’s a very quick and easy read, full of fun graphics and illustrations, that can easily be devoured in a single sitting. Its contents will be obvious to some, but with this sort of book I think the point is less to reveal new and shocking information and more getting people to examine things they hadn’t really thought about before.
Some key takeaways:
- It can be really hard to know what to do when something awful happens to someone you know. How do you know what’s the right thing to say, or how you can best help? Is it your place to say or do anything, or would you just be intruding? What if you want to show that you care, but are busy or overwhelmed by your own life and don’t have the bandwidth to do much? Most of us have a shameful story about someone we let down because we didn’t feel up to dealing with their situation. (And here I thought it was just me.)
- But if you genuinely care, even just a little (as opposed to being curious or a little gleeful about someone’s downfall), it’s almost always better to reach out than not, even if it’s just to say “I’m sorry.”
- “I’m sorry” is a great starting point in most situations, and in some cases may be all you need to do. Asking people how they’re doing is also a good idea, unless they are obviously in crisis. “How are you today?” when someone’s been dealing with something for a little while, or “how are you now?” when the issue is largely behind them, are also ways of showing you genuinely care.
- If you want to provide some kind of help, don’t just vaguely say “let me know if I can do anything” and leave the person in crisis to figure out what they need, wonder if that’s too much to ask of you or if you just meant to be polite, and risk being turned down if you can’t help in that way. Offer the thing(s) you can provide. Or if you’re thinking of something small like buying candy, just do it rather than pestering someone in crisis for all the details of their preferences.
- Don’t respond to someone else’s crisis with positive platitudes. Sentiments like “I’m sure it’ll turn out all right” or “everything happens for a reason” or “you just have to stay positive” send the message that you’re not interested in hearing about the actual difficult emotions and experiences that the person is having, and shut down the conversation. I think people do this out of a sense that we’re supposed to “fix” the problem, and if it’s too big a problem for us to actually fix, then we have to leave the subject on a positive note somehow. We feel like failures if we can’t offer some help, and if we actually can’t, we resort to insisting on positivity. But of course the reality is that offering someone a platitude not only doesn’t help them, but can send the message that you can’t handle a real talk about whatever they’re experiencing.
- Don’t respond by trying to ferret out the cause of someone’s misfortune, which can be indistinguishable from blaming them for it. (“Your father has lung cancer? Well, wasn’t he a smoker?”)
- Don’t respond with unsolicited advice or dire warnings. Assume the other person has spent far more time googling their situation than you have. Affirming your faith in their judgment and competence can be helpful for someone in crisis. If you really do have specialized knowledge related to their situation, you can always say, “I’m happy to give you advice if you want it.”
There’s a lot more good, sensible advice in the book than I have time or space to include here. And in general, I think the authors do a great job of taking into account the wide varieties of situations in which people might find themselves, and differences among people who won’t all want to be supported in the same way. There are a few suggestions here that I wouldn’t take, like saying “that can be hard” to account for the fact that some people feel good about their divorces or optimistic about their diagnoses. To me that seems to suggest that you have broad experience with the person’s particular issue, and would sound full of it coming from someone who doesn’t. The book also talks a lot about the importance of listening and not turning the conversation to your own similar experiences, which is important if the suffering person wants to talk, but not everyone wants to pour out their heart to you (or to anyone) about their difficult time. Though I suppose erring on the side of listening makes sense, especially for those who have to work at it.
At any rate, the point of a book like this is to present its mostly common-sense advice in an engaging, easy-to-digest format and to get people thinking about it, so they’ll actually be prepared to handle difficult situations in their own lives. And at that the book succeeds.