Supporting a friend in crisis

When It Happens

It happens to us all eventually. We get a text, or a call. Someone is in the hospital, there’s been a terrible diagnosis, a divorce, a fire, a death. Your friend is in crisis. Most of us tend to freeze, we simply don’t know what to do in the face of a serious crisis in the life of someone we love. It doesn’t help that our culture hides away such things so well. Death is sanitized and handled only by professionals. Hospitals hide away the sick. Legal issues are veiled in shame and secrecy. But no matter what our culture might say crisis is real, and those in the midst of it need the love and support of the people around them.

There are good ways to do that, and bad ways. A well meaning friend can make things so much better, but we can also make things worse. And so often we freeze and we do nothing. You might not need this information now, but you probably know someone who does. Share it with them, and save it away for yourself, so when the inevitable happens you’ll be ready. The dos and don’ts of crisis are actually pretty simple and straightforward. There is a pretty solid list of things not to do when a friend or family member is in crisis, and a list of things you should absolutely do! With this information you can feel more confident helping care for the people that matter most to you.

two people holding hands

What Not To Do

Often when confronted with the uncomfortable or unexpected we fall back on instinct, sadly our instincts are often wrong.

  1. Use trite phrases. We’ve all heard them. God wanted another angel. Time heals all wounds. Things happen for a reason. I know how you feel. My daughter got divorced and she… They’re the knee jerk things we spout without thinking when we’re nervous but they don’t help. They do the opposite. Either they express some pretty horrible views of God (seriously, there’s such a staff shortage in heaven this deity needs to murder babies?), or they are dismissive of what the person in crisis is experiencing right now. Yes, time heals wounds, but it hasn’t yet. Sometimes there isn’t a reason for the horrible things that happen. And no matter what, everyone’s experience is unique. Don’t diminish what they are experiencing, or explain away their suffering with a single sentence.
  2. Leave the ball in their court. “Let me know if you need anything.” This one is hard, because we’re usually trying to be polite but when we leave it up to the person in crisis to tell us what to do we put even more burden on them. So don’t do it. We’ll get to the things you should do later, but take this phrase right out of your book.
  3. Hand them tissues. This one was surprising to me when I first began working as a chaplain, but it’s true. Handing someone tissues is a social cue in our culture to “get it together.” It’s a social cue that we are being too emotional. Usually this move comes out of our own discomfort. We honestly want our friend to feel better, to not be hurting. The unconscious outgrowth of that is to stop the crying. But clearly that doesn’t really heal the hurt. It can, however, tell our friend without a word spoken that they can’t express their emotions honestly. (Note: if they ASK for tissues you should totally grab them some.)
  4. Vanish. It isn’t fun being around someone in crisis. The friend going through a divorce suddenly has an incredibly complicated life. The new widower hasn’t cleaned the house in a month and is down right grumpy and snappish. The whole thing is messy and uncomfortable and it’s likely that your friend in crisis is just surviving at this point, so if you don’t reach out to them they likely won’t reach out to you. They don’t have the mental bandwidth to do so. So reach out, stay present, and don’t vanish!

Two women facing away from camera with arms around each other

Ten Things To Do

  1. Be Present. The first and most important thing you can do is offer your presence. When things get bad lots of people vanish, leaving the person who is in crisis feeling isolated and alone. It can be difficult to be with someone who is mourning, or struggling in some other way but make it a point to do so. You don’t have to have the “right” words to say, or a solution to their problem. You just need to be present, and with your presence let them know that they are loved and not alone.
  2. Do something concrete. When we’re in crisis we’re not thinking clearly, so often if you ask your friend if they need anything they’ll say no, because they simply don’t have the mental bandwidth to think of anything. But they are likely struggling with daily activities. If you know their food preferences and dietary restrictions make them a meal or two and drop it off on the porch when you know they are home. Send a quick text letting them know they can pick it up. There’s no need for them to entertain you, but you’ve fed them for the night or more. Or call and ask if you can come over and clean their kitchen, bathroom, or do their laundry. In the midst of crisis these things that must be done often fall by the wayside, your help will be a great blessing. Offer to come do the cleaning while they are at the hospital, a doctor’s appointment, or with family so they don’t feel guilty about you working while they just survive.
  3. Validate their emotions. Your friend whose wife just died might be incredibly angry, or your cousin who has filed for divorce might seem giddy. Don’t judge their emotions, validate what they are feeling and support them as needed. It’s not uncommon to have your emotions explained away, or be told you are reacting incorrectly to crisis. Do the opposite. “I can see you are incredibly angry, I don’t blame you at all. This must be so hard.” When all else is spinning out of control it can be helpful for your loved one to know at least their emotions are acceptable to you.
  4. Follow their lead. I’ve been with someone who was going through something incredibly trying. Everyone else expected her to be sad, sitting at home and mourning. But she wanted to go out shopping and for lunch; so that’s what we did. And she was grateful I didn’t try to confine her to expected activities. She desperately needed a reminder that life was still happening, and there was still joy in the world. So follow your friend’s lead and let them guide what you do together.
  5. Be there when no one else is. Immediately after a diagnosis or death everyone is there. Meals pile up in the freezer, cards pour in, everyone calls. But six months later, or that first Christmas without a loved one there’s rarely any acknowledgement that we are still mourning. Make it a point to check in with your friend after everyone else has gone back to life as normal. Your friend’s life cannot go back to normal, while they will eventually find a “new normal” it won’t be like the old. Having someone else notice can make all the difference.
  6. Listen more than you speak. If, like me, you are a fixer this can be hard. But do your best to listen more than you speak. Let your friend guid the conversation, or vent if they need to. And above all resist the urge to make this about you. It’s tempting to say “I know how you feel” or “I went through something similar.” But both diminish the suffering of the other, we can never really know how someone else feels. And everyone’s experience is unique. So listen, and only offer advice or personal experience if asked.
  7. Organize & run interference. Are you a fixer? Need to do something? Great, become your friend’s personal assistant in the midst of their crisis. Organize your friend groups’ efforts to feed them, or carpool the kids. Put together a list of things they need and collect the donations. Run their fundraising efforts. Be willing to answer questions, run interference, or be the one to answer their phone and say “no comment.” Doing those things will take the burden of them off your loved one, and help meet their needs.
  8. Be  yourself. Don’t go looking for something to do (anything!) even if it’s something that isn’t you. If you are religious let them know you are praying for them, light candles at church, or ask if they’d like to be added to a prayer list. If you smudge, smudge for them. If you are a great cook, make them a meal. If you love animals offer to take their dog for a walk and scoop litter pans.
  9. Treat them normally. You’ll probably be tempted to treat your friend like spun glass. To not make the same jokes you normally would, to sort of tiptoe around them. Try your best not to do this. When everything in life has been turned upside down, when there’s chaos and suffering, having someone who reminds you of normalcy can be a great gift. Be the person around whom they can joke like they always do, or have a beer, or talk politics. Help them create a little oasis of the normal and ordinary in the midst of the chaos that crisis generates.
  10. Name and acknowledge. And with all the above, acknowledge that something is wrong. Some people will be so uncomfortable with their suffering they’ll pretend nothing has changed. It’s awkward and uncomfortable for everyone, but especially the person suffering. There’s no need to dwell on things, unless they want to process with you. But sometimes a simple, “this sucks!” goes a long way. Naming and acknowledging their crisis gives them permission to be emotionally honest and open. It makes you a safe person with whom they can be themselves, and deal with the reality of what is happening. Many of those around them will try to minimize or rationalize what is happening, and your acknowledgment of their truth will help heal those hurts.

Even if you don’t know anyone right now in crisis, keep this list handy. And if you someday are that person in crisis I invite you to print this out and keep a few copies with you. When someone inevitably says “call me if you need anything” or “tell me what I can do?” hand them this list and take a load off your own shoulders.


Get my free Crisis Support Checklist with questions to ask, room for notes, and great features to make it as easy as possible to support the person you love! Just click the preview image below…

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Help each other out loves, when you’ve experienced loss or trauma what was the one thing that someone did, or said, that helped the most?

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3 thoughts on “Supporting a friend in crisis”

  1. This post hit close to home for me because I’m a INTP personality and have little to no emotion…..which doesn’t go over well when trying to be “there” for people in need. I’m really trying hard to improve my delivery and communication with those I know need emotion and support 🙂

  2. This is wonderful! The biggest loss we have experienced as a family was my grandfather and it shook us all. Since we were experiencing it together as a family we found it helpful to just spend time together talking, sharing stories, crying and laughing together. He died of leukemia and we formed a family team to fundraise for the “big Climb” in Seattle which benefits the Leukemia/Lymphoma society, and giving back together was a helpful outlet for us all. My grandmothers neighbors all put together a meal train for us so we didn’t have to cook which was nice, but almost comical because we were being brought far more food than we could ever need, and had coolers upon coolers of things in the garage since there was no space in the fridge. So I guess in short the most helpful thing for us was grieving together as a family, and not trying to tackle it on our own.

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