In a time of crisis, ask first "How will this response help"?
Updated: Jul 25
As much as I have been "keeping calm and carrying on" with my books, videos, teaching and even little side projects to keep people smiling, such as a lockdown version of 12th night, and a parody of "one day more" - the effects of the coronavirus have not escaped me. And this is as much a personal request as a professional one if you are part of someone's support network - always ask yourself before reacting "How will this response help?"
Don't shoot the messenger
No-one likes receiving bad news, but in the first instance it is helpful to appreciate that the messenger is not the cause, and often one of your most helpful allies - they at least have some idea of what is going on!
An emotional reaction is of course understandable - and often it is likely to follow the Kubler-Ross model of the grief process (even if the news is not tragic - one is still grieving for the loss of the hope or expectation that they had): Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. It is also most likely when you feel helpless within the situation - often because of distance either physically or to the event itself. Unfortunately, anger is the emotion that is often most readily expressed - and at (or at least around) the person who has (out of the kindness of their heart, or as a much disliked part of their job), let us know.
When the message is part of a job:
Again, I am not saying do not be angry - you have the absolute right to own all of your emotions - whatever they are - all I am saying is, it is still possible to choose a response that can help shift the situation rather than exacerbate the upheaval. If you are of the mindset where you can choose (or perhaps you are the support network for the person directly affected) - asking questions:
- What happened?
- What now?
- What would you advise me to do?
...can be a helpful way for you to learn more as well.
The more you know, the easier it is to take effective action to manage.
When the message is from a friend, relative or loved one:
It is, again, normal to be upset - but here, you must remember you are one step removed from the situation - or at the very least be mindful that the person breaking the news is often directly involved or closer than you to the eye of the storm.
Please do NOT:
- Make their pain about you. When someone is already having to deal with an onslaught of emotional strain - they are not in any position to be able to comfort you - and nor should they be.
- "Have a go" at them "Why didn't you...?", "Why aren't you...?", "How could you...?" This is also hugely unhelpful. Not only is it likely that person will have had the same thought about themselves, but they will also often have reasons for their choices which they are trying to work through - and which you may know nothing of, and had you - you may have done little differently.
- "Spread gossip" - unless they have specifically asked you to, and if they have, then it is often better to forward their message verbatim. This is respectful of their choice of handling what is happening.
- "Give them advice" (except in very limited, and well-judged circumstances). They are often needing to process their own actions (to make them as measured and helpfully effective as possible) - they do not need you telling them what to do from your perspective (even if you are an expert in the area of the concern - it doesn't mean you are an expert in that specific instance). This is particularly true when you are working across cultures. Further, if you do make suggestions, do consider using the phrase "You may have already thought of this..." - because often they will have probably already tried it!
Instead try the following:
- Ask - what would you like me to do? or What can I best do to help? You are likely to have been told for a reason ie. Because you know the person involved; because you can take action; because you might be a hub for others who need to know (it isn't always about how much you're liked!!)
- Ask - would you like me to forward your message onto others? (...and perhaps - would you like me to act as a buffer so they come to me first not you?)
- Thank them for letting you know.
If you are in a position to offer practical help such as childcare, or making dinner, or doing the shopping, do so
- Support them by keeping their spirits up...things may not be ok, but a solid support network offers huge emotional strength
- Listen and be sensitive to what they have asked - do not over-ride an agreement to behave in a certain way thinking you know better. If someone has asked not to talk about it, find something different to focus on; if someone has asked for positive memories instead of condolences - offer those; if someone has asked - can you do X and you can...simply, please just do it.
A bit of background to this post
This plea comes not from a psychologist, but from a person who is managing her current situation the best she can.
My father was admitted to hospital with congestive heart failure leading to fluid on the lungs on December 15th. The wonderful staff at the Barnet Hospital (I cannot praise the NHS more) got everything under control recognising that his kidneys needed acute treatment - for which he would be transferred to the Royal Free sister hospital. We were still waiting by the time Tier 4 brought in further restrictions, and on December 19th dad's ward had a covid exposure.
I was reassured this would not affect his transfer as the treatment is considered acute and essential, they would need to wait for a side bay. And, I recount this as much to explain my experience of how under pressure the NHS is (despite their calm support when I call, I can hear the desperation and fatigue in their voices) - and to simply say - please, please follow guidelines to curb the spread.
Despite 4 negative tests, dad spiked a fever on the 23rd, which was brought under control (thankfully going by the 25th - but returning a positive covid test...along with a small outbreak on his ward ie 2 more cases from said exposure, which meant they could at least ensure he would be isolated and treated there - in the ward he was already familiar with - along with the other now covid positive patients). Again I can only continue praising the ward teams for continuing his care so well - and updating me every day when I call.
My own concern for my dad is that as well as clinical vulnerabilities - age, diabetes - he is also blind, which means that he needs that extra support - his phone was muted accidentally for a day; and when he spiked a fever he forgot to charge it - so I was fielding calls and messages from a number of worried friends around the world, as well as managing my own fear. (His mind is one of the sharpest I know and for a couple of days with the fever he wasn't at all with it.) Again - thanks to the ward team - we got the phone sorted, his temperature remains generally 'down', and he is stable to date - still on oxygen, still draining fluid which had built up on the lungs, and still awaiting transfer for acute kidney treatment, just now with a chesty cough (which I'm actually hoping means his covid infection was and remains mild).
I am of course grateful...
...for the fact that his friends ARE ringing him regularly; for the support my own close network (and my cousins) are giving me; and of course for the care of the medical team working in desperate situations throughout their own Christmas - and over the whole year. But I have had to be firm with others - and apologise if that has made me seem brusque, hence the reason for this post.
I am most certainly not the only person in this situation. I am most certainly not the only person who -like it or not- has their thoughts consumed with a loved one, while finding the energy and ability to compartmentalise enough to still do a good job in their own field - because life doesn't stop. But perhaps I am one of the people who can articulate what might help.
Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilienceFor coaching tips and tools including positive psychology: click WORK WITH ME or SKILL PILL and here for Media appearances or Psych Q&A. Twitter/IG @draudreyt
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(all of the exercises therein (and those in my previous "The Leader's Guide to Mindfulness" I am finding of huge use to myself right now!))
And to anyone just finding out - apologies, since December 15th I have tried to ensure everyone who needs to know knows, and am writing this now not as a "social media post" (I do not use it except professionally) - but to share my learning. If you wish to message me personally, please do so.