The Christmas season is fast approaching; decorations and lights are filling the streets and shopping malls, people are bustling about doing their shopping, Starbucks cups are red and green. The weather turns rainy, frosty, snowy, or—if you live in California—smoky. I will not reiterate the details, as I’m sure you have already heard plenty, but California has been suffering devastating wildfires these past few years, the worst of which destroyed almost an entire town less than a month ago.
Though the Christmas season is wonderful, fun, and magical, I’m sure most of us, if not all of us, know someone who is going through a rough or painful season; perhaps even Christmas itself is difficult and brings up sad memories. While it seems that the rest of the planet is merry and bright, maybe someone you know is just trying to get by, and you don’t know what to do or say.
In light of this, and in light of these recent events, I decided to write up a list of tips that I mainly learned through being a fire victim myself, and also through walking alongside other fire victims, and other crisis situations. Depending on your relationship with the person in crisis and the specific situation, you may find only one, just some, or in other cases all of the tips below to be helpful. By no means am I saying that I’m an expert at this, and these tips are neither a list in order or a formula; they are simply tools, ideas, and things that I have learned. But I hope you find them helpful, especially during the holidays, as you encounter hearts that need more than Christmas cheer.
(Because these fires are so prevalent at the moment—and because they are something I’ve gone through both as the victim and walking alongside victims—I’m going to be using them as my example for these tips, though most can be applied to all kinds of crisis/trauma situations.)
1. Be an amazing listener.
I can’t state this enough. If you talk to someone who has just gone through a traumatic event, the worst thing you can do is make it all about you! This happened to me after I lost my house: someone would approach me to offer sympathy, but then immediately say something along the lines of: “my third cousin’s mother-in-law’s neighbor’s step-son lost his home too, and he didn’t have time to save the dog, and blah, blah, blah,” which left me saying things like: “I’m so sorry” and “are they ok?”. In a moment like that, the person in crisis should not be the one giving comfort and concern. When you know someone has just been through a trauma, approach them knowing this conversation is not about you or other people you know, and that you are going in to listen.
2. Ask good questions.
One of the best ways I feel like someone is truly listening to me and that they care is when they ask good questions. It shows a lot of investment, attention, and intentionality. Now, since every person is different, someone else may not want to be asked questions or talk much about the issue, and the best way to discover this is to ask good questions. Feel them out at the beginning of the conversation, and if they open up and start talking, you have a green light to ask more. If they seem reluctant and closed off, don’t keep probing. Remember “good questions” are often detailed questions that give lots of space for answers and show that you are paying close attention.
3. Don’t say stupid stuff.
This may sound offensive, but it is amazing how many stupid things are said in painful situations. I truly believe most of them are said with good and kind intentions, that people simply don’t know what to say, and that they are trying to make the hurting person feel better. Good grief, I’ve said stupid things before when I’m just trying to help, so I’m no pro at this! I just have learned a lot from being on the receiving end of things. “Stupid stuff” includes blanket statements, opinions, and personal beliefs, such as: “It’ll all work out in the end” or “It could have been worse” or “Whatever will be will be.” Instead, especially if the crisis is very recent, try using empathetic statements, such as: “I’m so sorry” and “I’m so glad you’re OK” and “You did the best you could” and “I can’t even imagine” and “That really sucks” (I’m not kidding, a sincere “that sucks” was one of the best and most empathetic responses I got from people after I lost my home).
4. Offer help.
After listening, asking good questions, and empathizing, I’ve found that practical help is one of the best ways to help someone in crisis. The first thing you can do is simply ask: “What can I do to help?” or “Is there anything you need?” Oftentimes someone will not know how to answer this, or feel too embarrassed to answer it, or even feel badly asking for help. So in that case, I would go ask someone who knows them well. And in events like a fire, money really is the greatest gift you can give. Even for people with good insurance, it can sometimes take a while to get the actual payments, and most of the time the insurance can’t cover everything they have lost. Gift cards to places like Costco and Amazon are also super helpful. If you don’t have much to give, even a $5 gift card to Starbucks can mean a ton! If you are able, give something practical.
5. Don’t compare stories.
Even if you went through the exact same situation as someone else, this is not the time to tell your story or act the expert. What the grieving person needs is your listening ear and your empathy, not your story. Now, there may be a moment when you sense it actually would encourage the person to tell them you went through something similar, and that you “understand a little bit how they might be feeling”. But in this instance, make sure you don’t go off telling your long, dramatic tale; turn the conversation right back to the person in crisis and their story.
6. Remember everyone is different.
Even if you’ve been through the exact same scenario and know a hundred other people who have too, the person in front of you still went through something different. And each person, each heart, each reaction, is also different. One person may lose their house and move on, while the next one could be crushed for years; someone else may have terrible post traumatic stress, while someone else may easily bounce back. The point is, when encountering someone in crisis, it is important to relate to them uniquely right where they are at, and to remember that every heart is going to react differently than the next, and differently than yours.
7. Don’t do nothing.
Sometimes it’s really easy for me to get intimidated by painful situations and crisis. It’s normal to be afraid that you won’t know what to do or say, or to not know how to help, or to think that the person in crisis doesn’t want to be bothered. In most cases, I’ve found the person/people in the trauma actually do want the support, kindness, help, etc. During the fires, when my friends, family, and I were evacuated, I clearly remember the people who came to help us. One friend just showed up with tons of groceries; another brought food from her own kitchen; another just came and hung out with us, and then later ran to Target to get me a heating pack for my sore back. Their kindness and thoughtfulness meant so much. It’s OK to voice to the person in crisis that you don’t know what to do or say, but then do what you can. Sometimes that’s just a text, or mailing a card, or giving a hug, or just being with them and not saying anything at all. Whatever it is, “don’t do nothing.”
Please remember: each situation is completely unique. You may not be in a place to give at all, and that’s OK. Or you can find other ways to give. Or sometimes you need to save what you can give for someone else. The important thing is to go with your gut in each situation that presents itself to you, and to remember that you can’t be everything to everyone, but you can be something to the people who cross your path.