Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Helping Friends During Times of Acute Crisis

It was a terribly hot Friday afternoon in July of 1992. I suppose all Friday afternoons in Wichita Falls, Texas are terribly hot in July…I was enjoying a glass of tea along with some chips and salsa with some friends when I was paged to the ER at was then Wichita General Hospital. A lady in her late 20’s rode on the ambulance as paramedics strived to revive her husband, who had collapsed at their home in a few moments earlier. By the time I arrived, she was in the tiny “family room” adjacent to the ER curled up in the fetal position sobbing uncontrollably. And what I remember to this day is: she did not have any shoes on… She was sitting there in her socks. Minutes earlier the nursing supervisor and ER doctor informed her that her husband had been pronounced dead.

People often ask me: what do you do in such circumstances? What do say? How do you handle it? Here is the first and perhaps the most important thing to do when a friend or stranger is experiencing acute crisis. Identify their support system and then do what you can to assemble it.

So that is what I did that hot Friday afternoon in July. I asked this young, terrified woman who I could call for her. Do you have family? Do you have a minister? Do you have neighbors or close friends? She answered no to all of the above along with a few more creative ideas I generated for potential support systems. Now what do I do? They didn’t tell us in training what do in such situations. As it turned out, I ended up sitting with her until her family from out of state arrived.

What do well intentioned people do when a friend, neighbor, or co-worker is in the middle of a major crisis, and that person simply does not have a support system? Obviously you don’t want to leave them high and dry. And depending on the situation, their list of needs could be extensive.

I think there are several creative choices that can be made regarding the formation of a potential support network for your struggling friend, but there is a very important prerequisite that must be fulfilled first. As a concerned friend, you have to realize that one person does not comprise a system. The word system generally suggests the presence of a plurality of people. And it takes a system to help successfully.

If you ignore that principle, it is tempting to get in rescue mode. You are going to be the knight in shining armor that saves the day and keeps your friend from imminent peril. That is a lot of nonsense. It almost always ends up being a discouraging endeavor that can even end friendships. In times of crisis, the key word is system. Think systemically. I am trying hard these days to think systematically, because I know there are more hot days in July looming in the very near future….

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