. . . it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes and sends you out into the day . . .
Naomi Shihab Nye
People who have PTSD, or are grieving, crave comfort the way a plant craves water or the way sunflowers turn towards the sun. Sadly, loved ones and friends may avoid people who most need their help. Sometimes, I think it's because they don't know what to say or they cannot deal with the hard truth that they cannot change what has happened or control what is to come. People are afraid of hard truths. It doesn't have to be that way. Some people may be more gifted, if you want to call it that, at opening to other people's emotions. But I believe that nearly anybody can learn to help a loved one along their healing journey.
One of my dearest friends (J.) told me a story that has a lot to teach about courage and kindness. On an autumn day about ten years ago now, J. and her husband were driving along the highway that runs between the Yukon and Haines, Alaska. The road was wet and the sun had come out and the pavement was glistening and, suddenly, as they rounded a curve they were surprised to see a loon on the road. Now, loons - as some of you may know - can only take off on water and this particular loon must have mistaken the road for water, landed, and was unable to take off again. J.'s husband pulled over and, without thinking about it at all, J. got out of the car, gently picked up the loon and got back into the car and held the loon on her lap. She told me recently that she never even thought about how the loon could have hurt her with its strong beak. All she thought about was that it was in need of help. J. and her husband drove until they came to a lake and let the loon go at the water's edge. The loon swam out into the middle of the lake and was gone. This story has lodged in my mind because it involved a living being in need of help, two people who were unafraid of being hurt, who knew the right thing to do, and did it. I have held onto that story like a talisman because it embodies what I have often wanted and rarely found: someone to comfort me when I was in need of comfort.
How Can You Help Loved Ones with PTSD
If you have a family member or friend with PTSD, or one who is dealing with grief, they need someone with the courage to simply "be" with them during difficult times. Even if you are afraid or feel like you just don't know what to do, that someone can be you. Dr. Frank Ochberg, who has worked with trauma survivors for many years, offers some basic advice about how you can help your loved one. It is well worth reading. Below are some things to try that my husband and I have come up with during the years I've spent struggling with healing. For more suggestions, take a look at Shock Waves: A Practical Guide to Living with a Loved One's PTSD.
What Can You Do?
- Give your loved one a foot rub or neck rub
- Go for quiet walks
- Go for coffee or hot chocolate
- Hold their hand
- Listen, listen, listen
- Be there
What Can You Say?
- Are you okay?
- I'm sorry you're feeling bad right now.
- Can I hold you?
- It's okay to be sad, hurt, angry (whatever the person is feeling).
- I love you.
Things NOT to Say
- What do you expect me to do about it?
- It's been ___ years (fill in the blank), why can't you just get over it (your pain, the past, your grief)?
- It upsets me when you're sad, mad (feel in the blank).
How to Soften Your Heart
The bottom line is that it isn't so much about what you say or do, it's about how you are. Can you be kind? Can you be accepting? Can you open your heart to what they're feeling? I like to think of it as a kind of quiet opening, a softening, that allows someone to be present with intense emotions without blaming the other person or expecting them to change too soon. Like my doctor told me: healing is a process not a race. (Moss heart, photo: Randi Hausken, flickr)
(This is not to say that loved ones should take the place of a good therapist or doctor or that they should be "on call" 24/7. More in a future post on how people whose loved ones have PTSD or complicated grief can cope with stress and get support for themselves.)