This is a guest post from Laurel Braitman, PhD, a writer and teacher and a secular, clinical chaplain-in-training. She received her doctorate in history and anthropology of science from MIT and is Director of Writing and Storytelling at the Stanford School of Medicine’s Medical Humanities and the Arts Program, where she helps clinical students, staff, and physicians communicate more clearly and vulnerably for their own benefit and that of their patients. Laurel is also the founder of Writing Medicine, the global community of writing healthcare professionals.
Her last book, Animal Madness: Inside Their Minds was a New York Times bestseller and was translated into seven languages. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, Wired, California Sunday, and National Geographic as well as on Radiolab, National Public Radio, and many other media outlets. She splits her time between rural Alaska and her family’s commercial citrus and avocado ranch in Southern California.
Her new book is What Looks Like Bravery: An Epic Journey Through Loss to Love.
Life is nothing if not an endless buffet of dishes that are comprised of both disappointment and joy. For better or worse, I’ve had a lot of stuff happen that has given other people the chance to show up for me (or not). Things like deaths of close family members, bad diagnoses, natural disasters, divorce, but also the smaller stuff that sometimes hurts just as much: deaths of pets, breakups, lost jobs, a project turning out way worse than I had hoped, and more. Along the way, I’ve learned a bit about what feels good and what doesn’t in the wake of a big or small crisis. Obviously, it’s not the same for everyone, but here are 10 recommendations for how to show up for someone going through something shitty that I’ve learned firsthand:
1. The best way to show up for someone is to just show up. Don’t overthink what you’re going to do or say—or unleash the dreaded but well-intended “Let me know if I can help” (which only puts the burden on them). Just do something. Anything. Even if it’s sending a postcard that says “I’m so sorry.” Many more people than you’d think become frozen and don’t act during hard times because they’re scared of doing or saying the wrong thing. When in doubt, just admit that you are stumped. As in “I heard about XYZ. I have no idea what to say or how to support you. Just know that I’m thinking of you.”
2. Make it easy for the recipient of your act-of-kindness to receive it. Avoid making someone do any work. For example: Drop things off without coming inside and requiring someone to host you (unless they specifically ask for a visit). Offer help that doesn’t require them to share their schedule or hide a key (unless they offer). Instead, leave something on their doorstep that won’t spoil immediately (or if it will, stick it inside a cooler), send them something in the mail, or send an email with your thoughts but tell them in bold letters that you do not expect a reply. When you text or call, don’t ask for updates, and be sure to tell them you are not expecting a return phone call or text. You should also be crystal clear that they should not write you a thank-you note for anything you send their way. Odds are, when the storm passes, you will hear from this person, but if you don’t, assume that your kindness was appreciated.
3. Food is love. Just try to bring/send things that can be frozen and eaten later so they’re less likely to go to waste. I like Spoonful of Comfort, but there are a million options. Gift cards for grocery stores or food delivery can also be great. But if this requires the use of an app, make sure the recipient or someone they spend time with has the app installed on their phone and knows how to use it.
4. Distract them… fruitfully. Being a tiny bit avoidant during a crisis is extremely underrated. Refusing to focus on what is going on 24/7 doesn’t mean someone is in denial, it just means they might need to give their nervous system a break. TV is a great way to do this, but our infinite buffet of streaming services can be overwhelming. So offer someone a bespoke list of uplifting things to watch (I’ve found that podcasts and books are often too much to focus on). The series Ted Lasso is a great example of a crowd-pleaser, but the options are endless and should be tailored to the people you’re writing a list for. When my mom was dying, we watched Indian Matchmaker on Netflix, and it was perfect. A friend of mine swears by the Paddington movies. But maybe the person who’s getting your list is comforted by action movies or competitive cooking shows or the real-estate-reality genre. Just try to focus on their taste, not yours, and if they don’t have Amazon Prime or Apple TV+ or what-have-you, offer to get it for them.
5. Gift a subscription to a meditation app. Personally, I could not have gotten through the last few years without the Calm app. Even when doing a meditation was too much, listening to the music or nature sounds or the sleep stories has been fantastic. You can give someone a 30-day subscription or a full year. Other options are Relax Meditation, Bettersleep, and Headspace. As with the other stuff that requires some semblance of tech-savvy, make sure they can install it and know how to use it.
6. Thoughts are better than prayers. Unless you know someone specifically wants you to pray for them, don’t offer yours. Personally, despite being a very secular person, I love when people offer to pray for me or my loved ones—but I may be in the minority. To someone who is not religious, it can feel patronizing or belittling of their pain. A better phrase is “You’re in my thoughts.”
7. Refrain from silver linings. These are sentences that start with “At least…” or “Luckily….” The only thing worse than having a hard thing happen to you is having people try to force you to see the positive before you’re ready. Better options include “This is so hard.” “Tell me how you’re feeling, if you feel like it.” Or, best of all, just make kindly I’m-listening noises while they talk to encourage them to keep going.
8. Stuff. I know it’s very American to suggest capitalistic solutions to emotional pain, but here we are, and I do love stuff, lol. The following have brought me and folks I adore pleasure when things have felt overwhelming:
- Nodpod Weighted eye mask: Sleep can be elusive when you are worried that life as you know it is over. Spending 34 dollars on an eye mask may seem insane, but it’s so soft, and the weight is magical. It’s like a lullaby for your face.
- Kneipp bath oils: There is something about turning your bathwater green or blue or purple and sinking into a cloud of non-fussy, herby scent that pauses your shrieking internal voices for a second. These oils aren’t cheap, but they’re not super expensive either. I prefer the sampler packs so I can customize them to my mood. My favorite scents are Beauty Secret, Lavender, and Goodbye Stress.
- A birdfeeder. Truly any kind that works for their yard/balcony/window (and is visible from a favorite area of the home) is great. Wildbirds Unlimited has good options and they can tell you what food is best for a given area, but don’t overthink this. If the feeder ends up being for squirrels, that’s fine too. They’re very entertaining (see this unicorn feeder if you doubt me). A feeder is nature’s streaming service and will provide endless hours of programming that remind you that you are part of something larger and that whatever you are going through is part of the cycle of life, even if it feels like crap.
9. Invite someone on a walk. A friend or acquaintance going through a hard thing may not have the stamina or desire to go out to a restaurant or attend even the smallest of gatherings. It takes too much energy to explain what’s going on in their life… and crises have a way of making people enraged by the small talk often required at such events. A walk is easier. You don’t have to talk if you don’t want to—which makes it low-lift social time, and it also gets someone a bit of fresh air.
10. Be the last one to leave. Whether it’s a death, divorce, breakup, lost job, pet gone missing, a life-altering diagnosis, a home destroyed, or something else—the person or people you’re showing up for will really appreciate your showing up again six months or a year or many years(!) after the fact. In the wake of a loss, the field can be crowded, but with every passing day, the world seems to remember what happened less and less. Life moves on, as it should. But that doesn’t mean the loss is any less acute for the person or people who suffered it. Send someone a text on the birthday of their lost loved one. Or on any holiday whatsoever. Share memories of the person, place, or creature without being asked. Remind someone that what mattered to them still matters to you. That it always will.
Showing up for someone else is the best medicine for YOU. I am a dog who needs a job or I’m liable to chew off my tail. And my favorite job is making someone feel marginally less alone. Maybe yours is fixing bikes or being good at returning phone calls or thrifting things your friends will love. All of these count. I’m not always great at showing up for others, and like most acts of service, it comes from a selfish place (wanting to feel good and less alone myself), but that doesn’t make it suspect or any less valuable. We all need meaning in our days. Being the kind of person who is useful in a crisis (whether it’s via frozen lasagna, a handwritten note, offering rides or childcare, or taking a heartbroken friend on a walk to feed pigeons or scream at the sky) is something we should all aspire to—the type of gift that gives both ways.
Laurel Braitman is the author of What Looks Like Bravery: An Epic Journey Through Loss to Love. Her website is LaurelBraitman.com.