Small, simple gestures can make us extraordinary helpers.
Life is tragic at times. You never really know what is coming. An accident, a death, a diagnosis, a loss. The thing you least expected and were totally unprepared for happens. And you feel helpless, sad and beat down. Life keeps moving, seemingly ignoring your tragedy. In these moments you need help and support from others. I have been there. Nine years ago I woke up one day sighted and ended that day in an ER, visually impaired.
My disability is not apparent. I am not the only one who is “passing”, with no outward sign of disability or illness or trauma. Many, most of us, are walking wounded. We have experienced abuse, victimization, chronic illness, the loss of someone close to us, the experience of war, or the challenge of chronic pain or disabilities. We all have to care for each other, and learn how to hold each other up. When people tell you their truth, share their wounds and their need for help, what do you do or say?
What I have found is that there are myriad reactions. Some people just disappear, for months and some, for good. Others just want to pretend like it never happened, to forget. Most want to help, but are not really sure how. Some are eager to offer support, make promises but do nothing. And then there are those few who just roll up their sleeves and jump in with you -- they are committed and can anticipate your needs. They tend to be the natural helpers or those that have somehow done it before. And they understand how to be selfless.
I would argue that most of us are not natural helpers. Given this, however, there are positive ways we can react to others that are experiencing pain or loss or illness. Simple, specific and small things we can do to move past our fear or confusion or feelings of discomfort. These are five ordinary acts that make us extraordinary helpers.
1. Be there -- just show up in some way. Be there even if you don't know what to say or what to do. Reach out and text or call or visit. Just listen if that is what is needed. And if you want to cry, do it. Do not be afraid to show your emotion, it is authentic. It is OK to create distractions from the ugly stuff going on if that is what the person needs. I wanted people to tell me funny stories or regale me with the crap in their lives. We are sometimes afraid that we will do or say the wrong thing, but showing up and saying something is better than the alternative. One of the best things you can say is, I am here for you.
2. Be honest about how you feel and share it. You can own that you don't know what to say, or that you are scared or that you are freaked out that maybe, what happened to others, can happen to you. And when it has happened to you it can trigger sadness or grief or anxiety. It is OK to have all these feelings and to share those with the person who needs your support. The best thing people said to me was: "Man, what happened to you really sucks." Or, “I can’t even imagine what it is like for you, but it scares me.” A good friend told me she had cancer and I said, "I don't want you to have to go through that, but I am here for you." Another friend suddenly lost a family member and I said, “This is a horrible and tragic thing and I can’t image the depth of your pain.” And that is exactly how I felt in those moments. Authenticity is key.
3. Think about what you can do to help and what is needed. After my accident people would ask me what I needed, but I truly did not know. So make some suggestions of what you can do based on your strengths, skills and talents, and what you can truly deliver. Small gestures are as good as large ones. A friend brought me my first audio book and that was huge. Another person organized my kitchen and kept up with dishes and another helped with child care. My daughter and her friends sang a song for my friend a few days before she died and that is a moment I will never forget. They are all gifts. Through trial and error, and dialogue, you will figure it out. It may not be pretty or the best thing at first, but it is something.
4. Healing is a long-term process. It takes place over months, years and yes, sometimes lifetimes. You can't snap your fingers and make everything okay. So do not try. Don't blame or shame those when they are in the long process of whatever is their timetable of healing and recovery. And remember that what people will need will change over time on that journey. The pressure of needing to appear okay, plus our amazing ability to adapt over time means we also have the fairy dust to make people forget. Forget we have disabilities, wounds, scars, and illnesses. I am so functional I have to remind people I am visually impaired. And I still need help. Do not forget that people need you for the longer term.
5. Be open to your own transformation. You can learn much about yourself when you deal with someone who has had something terrible, unthinkable, unchangeable happen to them. Pay attention to how you feel, react, or hell, don't react. If you have fear and discomfort, explore why it is happening. Can you have a sense of humor about it? Can you be open enough to show helplessness and vulnerability? Can you be truly okay with what you can offer, and can you say no when what is asked of you is too much? Can you make it not about you, just for a moment? When you explore these questions, you allow room for growth.
We all need to be strong for each other. So many of those around you need help and support. And now you know ways to give it. In small and simple human gestures, you can be someone's hero. You can be extraordinary.