Since August, I’ve visited two different friends in two different mental hospitals and journeyed with them as they have pursued health. I’ve had a friend diagnosed with a terminal illness and my best friend just lost her dad.
All that to say, I’ve learned a lot about what to say and what not to say when people are navigating illnesses and grief. I’m sharing with you what I’ve learned now because while many people are happy and filled with joy during the holiday season, many are not. Even those not diagnosed with mental illness sometimes need some extra love and empathy during the holiday season as dates and celebrations can bring up past traumas, difficult memories, and pangs of loss. If you have a friend or family member in need of some support, here are some things to keep in mind:
- Listen and validate. People want to be seen and heard. When we come at them with our advice without validating their feelings, it seems like an automatic wall goes up and whatever words we say (even if they are good words) are quickly deflected. It really doesn’t matter what you think about their problem, situation, or feelings. What matters is that they feel like you are taking a moment to imagine things from their perspective, that you are willing to feel their pain with them, that you get that they feel locked in a battle that is very difficult to fight. Reflecting back to them what they say to you lets them know that you are hearing them and trying to understand what they are communicating, regardless of how you may feel about what they are saying. You can say things like, “I hear you are really sad about those events” or “It sounds like she made you angry when she did that to you.”
- Both empathy and sympathy have a role. One of my friends feels especially validated when I say things like, “I am so sorry that happened to you. It must have been so hard to deal with that.” If the event that happened is outside my realm of experience, it might be hard for me to access empathy because I have no idea the complex feelings that are raging in her. However, I can be sympathetic and feel with her. If the event that happened is something I have personally experienced, I can empathize with and feel into her. I am able to see things as she does because my similar experience allows me to share her perspective. I can say things like “It’s so devastating when we find out we have been betrayed.” But before I share my own story, I find it helpful for me to ask if my friend would like me to share my related story, and only then, authentically share from beginning to end – the good, the bad, the ugly, the restoration.
- Stay away from the savior complex. You will not heal your friend. You are not in charge of his recovery. You are not responsible for her actions. Your job is to help as God calls you to help. I have not met anyone with a mental illness that was an “easy fix.” Therefore, saying things like, “You should just pray more” will not be helpful. If you remember that God is the healer and you are not the fixer, it will be easier to stay away from unhelpful statements. Also, staying away from the savior complex allows for others to help. There might be times when your friend calls and God tells you not to answer the phone. There might be times when you have to say, “No, I can’t help you with that, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love you and care for you.” If you are following God’s lead, you are not abandoning your friend. You are creating space for her to seek God or for someone else to intervene.
- Own up to your mistakes. As I mentioned before, I do not always say the right things at the right time. As such, I must apologize for those remarks and ask for forgiveness and grace. Because I could not access empathy OR sympathy during a conversation with a friend (I was stressed, tired, and running an errand), I didn’t take time to listen to her. I assumed she was being irrational about something that in my mind was a non-issue, when in fact the whole situation had deep roots in her trauma. Of course when our mutual counselor-friend shed her brilliant light on this situation, I felt horrible. What did I learn? Don’t answer the phone when I don’t have capacity and own up to my mistakes. Thankfully, my sweet friend forgave me.
- Be honest about how you can help. Recently, I had NO idea how I could help because of my own limitations of feeling overwhelmed with my own stuff. But I still said, “Let me know if I can help you in any way.” (See “savior complex” above) What I think I should have said? “I want to be there for you. I’m not sure what form that will take, but know I love you and care for you deeply.”
- Listen to those around you. My husband had to have a come to Jesus meeting with me the other night. I had had cried five times in as many days. My eyes looked terrible. I had no energy left by the time he got home. I had no joy. And he reflected to me what he saw: a burned-out woman. Sometimes when we are caregiving, we lose perspective and we lose ourselves. Pay attention to those red flags people are waving in your face because chances are, you don’t realize you’ve taken on too much. And then you remember it’s time to practice Matthew 11:28-30.
What other tip can you add about caregiving for a friend with a mental or physical illness or perhaps dealing with grief?
On Wednesday, Susan Ely confesses her history with Christmas and how after some good life lessons, she is now a recovering Christmas-aholic. She shares her practical wisdom, her spiritual applications, and her new book, Holidazed: How to slow down, spend less, and restore your sanity for the holidays.
On Friday, Michelle continues with the Christmas theme. Have you been pondering what the perfect gifts are for your loved ones this season? Have you ever thought they might cost nary a penny? What if there is only one gift…and it is yourself?
We are scheduling SDG Connections posts for January 2016! Please pray about and considering sharing your story with us! Click here for details.
2016 4th SDG Retreat
2016 SDG Retreat Information & Registration is LIVE! Click here for more details. Only 2 MORE WEEKS left of early bird pricing!
SDG Gathering is on a break (but we’ll still be writing)!
Can you believe that we’ve been linking up for 243 weeks between this space and Finding Heaven? That’s 4.67 years. CRAZINESS! It’s been a joy, y’all. So many friendships and connections. So much encouragement and truth offered over the years. God has been faithful to this community.
However, since Lisa and I have added SDG Retreat planning and I’m also running the fundraiser, something needs to fall off the plate. Though we love you and love visiting you, we are going to suspend the link-up until after the SDG Retreat.
We will still be writing on Mondays and hosting #SDGConnections on Wednesdays and Fridays, so please come and talk with us in the comments. We will continue to respond there (we really want to continue to be a community and it is so helpful when you respond to us after our posts – we love to hear your voices!), send out weekly prayer requests, and converse on Facebook.