I have some patients, friends and family that are in one form of crisis or another during this time of isolation and concern with COVID-19. Whether that crisis is physical, emotional, financial or spiritual they are all in despair.

As I try to navigate and help with their many issues and concerns I struggle with thoughts of “am I being a good nurse, friend and/or family member?” I struggle with what to say or not say. I have issues deciphering if I am doing too much or too little.

I have come to learn over the years that the best form of service and assistance to those in need is simply to jump in and “Do something.” In addition, I highly suggest sticking with the “silence is golden” rule. Too many clichés and unnecessary comments can really leave a mark for those suffering.

Here are some helpful tips to say and don’t say:

  • God will never give you more than you can handle. While some believe strongly in this statement, it is singularly unhelpful to the person who is neck-deep in a crisis, trying to swim against a Tsunami. A wonderful phrase came from Support for Special Needs. They suggest changing this from “God will never give you more than you can handle” to “Let me come over and help you do some laundry.” This strikes me as even more theologically correct.
  • It gets better. Yes, yes it does. But right now, it’s not better. And before it gets better, it may get way worse.
  • When God shuts a door, he opens a window. Maybe, but maybe not. Maybe she just shuts a door. Maybe there is no window. There was no window for Job. There was a cosmic battle that raged as he sat in distress. There might not be a window.
  • Did you pray about it? Again – theologically correct. “Don’t worry about anything, instead, pray about everything…” but in a crisis, you don’t heap guilt onto pain and suffering.
  • God is good – all the time. Another one that is possibly theologically correct. But is it helpful to say this when someone has just lost a child and is screaming at Heaven? Is it helpful to say this to the person who is undergoing chemo treatments? For us to say this from a place that is calm and safe will probably not be helpful.
  • But for the grace of God go I. “But why you? Why do you get that grace and not me? Why am I the one in the crisis? Was God’s grace withheld from me? Those are valid responses to that phrase. I understand the phrase, and I’ve used it myself, but it doesn’t help the person who is in deep pain.
  • Don’t worry. God’s in Charge. Yeah? Well, she’s not doing a very good job then is she? If God is in control, this brings up some serious theological implications about God’s role in a crisis. Instead of a theology of suffering, we might want to think about a community of suffering. Because a fellowship of suffering leads me to sit with a person and say “It’s too much to bear – may I sit with you and bear it with you?”
  • Maybe God needed to get your attention. Thank God no one ever said this to me during times of crisis – because I might have had to punch him or her in the face.
  • Maybe it happened for a reason. Remember what I said about punching someone in the face?
  • Just call me if you need anything.While I want to appreciate this, the fact is that people in crisis usually don’t have the ability to call, so they won’t. Even if you don’t know someone well, you can bring him or her a meal or drive him or her somewhere.
  • I could never go through what you’re going through. What?? This does not comfort. A false elevation of the character and ability to cope of the person going through the crisis only serves to further wound and isolate. The one who is going through a crisis longs to be on the other side. They wake up and breathe deeply, only to remember the awful reality of their situation, and wish they didn’t have to go through it.

So what do we do? How do we respond?

I think those are difficult questions, but the best analogy I have for people in acute crisis is looking at them as burn victims. Caring for burn victims is divided into three stages that overlap.

The first is the emergent or resuscitative stage. At this stage priority is given to removing the person from the source of the burn and stopping the burning process. The big things to think about are fluid replacement, nutrition, and pain management. Translated into crisis care, this means we’ll bring meals, coffee money, and pick up children from day care.

The second stage is the acute or wound healing stage. At this stage, the body is trying to reach a state of balance, while remaining free from infection. During this stage, patients can become withdrawn, combative, or agitated. This stage can be a lengthy and unpredictable stage. Burn victims, like people in crisis, often lash out at those closest to them. Translate this into listening, listening, and listening some more.

The final stage is the rehabilitative or restorative stage. The goal at this stage is for a patient to resume a functional role within their family and community. Reconstruction surgery may be needed. Encouragement and reassurance are critical to the person at this stage. This would translate into going on walks with the person, taking them out to a movie or dinner, having them over for coffee or a meal.

Burn care (or any physical recovery state) has a lot to teach us about loving and caring for people in crisis. And those who care for burn victims rarely use clichés — they are too busy caring.

“There is something about suffering that longs for someone to sit with us through the pain. It’s the fellowship of suffering. It’s the words ‘you are not alone’ put into action. The sitting bears witness to our pain. More than a card or a casserole, the familiar, patient presence of another says to us ‘it’s too much for you to bear, but I will be with you, I will sit with you.”