A couple of years ago when I was going through a particularly traumatic period of sadness, one of the most helpful things my friend Becky did from 1,136 miles away was simply to be on the other end of the phone line while I sobbed. My heart hurt and I just needed two things: to cry and to not feel alone. While all of my friends showed incredible love and support, this one gesture – of being there – stands out in my mind as an ultimate and pure act of kindness.
I bring this up because an excellent essay appeared in today’s New York Times about the complexities of empathy and the sense of helplessness that often occurs when a friend or acquaintance is coping with crisis. Sometimes the closer you are to a person, the harder it is to be a friend when your friendship is needed most. The problem seems too overwhelming, too personal, too … too … there are so many justifications, often very understandable, for what we do and do not do in these situations. Likewise, the traumatized person is incapable of asking for help or doesn’t know how to reach out. They’re in such incredible pain, and chances are the remedy for the source of their suffering is out of their hands and yours.
Unfortunately, these circumstances make us vulnerable to feeling so overcome by the situation that instead of doing even the smallest thing to help, we do nothing at all. Oftentimes, this can come in the form of the most well-intentioned offer to help, but without any sort of follow-up. Which is why I thought it was particularly helpful that the Times essay talked about responding with true empathy or “instrumental aid.” According to the essay:
“There are any number of tasks to be done, and they’re as personal as your thumbprint,” Dr. Rainer said. If you really want to help a family in crisis, offer to do something specific: drive the carpool, weed the garden, bring a meal, do the laundry, go for a walk.
You don’t have to be a superhero when a friend is in anguish. Sometimes, the best thing you can do for someone in crisis is to listen. Sometimes, all it takes is simply being there. Thank you, and be kind.