I had just moved to a different state when a close friend called to say her pregnancy — which we’d celebrated right before I left town — had complications. The risks to her and her baby were significant.
“What can I do,” I asked, mentally preparing myself to fly back at a moment’s notice.
“Nothing,” she said. “There’s nothing anyone can do but wait.”
It was a deeply unsatisfying answer. I wanted to do something. I needed to do something.
Fortunately, my friend had her baby, and she and her child are healthy and happy.
Trying to support a loved one through a medical crisis can be especially fraught. You don’t want to minimize the crisis, but you also don’t want to be melodramatic or panicked, either. The person may want to talk about it, or they may want you to distract them from it. These are sensitive situations with myriad variables. Here’s how two trauma experts advise navigating them.
Common emotional reactions to a medical crisis
When you are the person experiencing a medical crisis, fear is a common emotion, David Reiss, psychiatrist and trauma expert, tells Inverse: Whether it’s fear of death, the unknown, pain, the loss of future plans, or incapacity.
“Fear is often accompanied by sadness and grief — even if the crisis is not life-threatening — as well as loneliness and, not infrequently, anger,” Reiss says. “Depending upon the specific circumstances of the crisis and the person’s particular psychological makeup, there may also be embarrassment or shame.”
Sacha McBain is a clinical psychologist and assistant professor at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. One of her areas of focus is trauma stemming from medical events.
She says loved ones will likely experience many of the same emotions as the person going through the medical crisis.
McBain tells Inverse, “Loved ones may also feel some level of emotional numbing, avoidance, or frustration [when others] can’t quite understand the impact an event has had. There can be the pressure to ‘fix it’ which can lead to feelings of resentment or confusion in a relationship.”
How to support someone going through a medical crisis
McBain says that one of the most important things you can do to support someone going through a medical crisis is “release yourself from the urge to fix the problem. Many people going through a medical crisis first and foremost need your emotional support and to be genuinely heard,” she says, “We know from research that social support is the number one protective factor against the development of PTSD and other mental health concerns after a traumatic event, which medical crises often are.”
She advises that when a loved one comes to you with concerns during or after a medical crisis, “ask if they’d like you just to listen or if they need help with problem-solving. Then respect their answer.”
Reiss agrees that the most important thing you can do to support a loved one is to follow their lead. “Remember that it is your place to be a friend, companion, or relative — not a physician or a therapist.”
Some people facing a medical crisis will “embrace denial” and will “reject, turn away from or be dismayed by anything other than unconditional optimism — even if it is partially totally unrealistic to be optimistic,” he says.
Some people may want to talk about their deepest feelings and fears in full; some may only want those emotions to be acknowledged without explicit discussion, and “most fall somewhere in between those extremes.”
McBain cautions against falling into the trap of invalidating the person’s experience and feelings. “In psychology, we call this ‘social constraints,’ or you may have heard of the term ‘toxic positivity’...These are things we do or say, consciously or unconsciously, to suppress the emotions of our loved ones because they make us uncomfortable or we don’t know how to fix them,” she says.
Reiss agrees, “this is often counterproductive,” he says. “Statements like ‘it will be okay,’ ‘it won’t be that painful,’ ‘you’ll be fine,’ can leave the person feeling uncomfortable about expressing the depths of their fears and concerns, feeling misunderstood, and feeling abandoned, or angry.”
Sharing your own feelings and concerns as is appropriate and accepted is also important. But don’t “make it about yourself,” Reiss adds. “Express your concerns as it may support or comfort the person who is ill, but not to further burden them or trigger guilt.”
He also recommends leaving medical diagnoses, prognoses, or predictions to the physicians.
“There is nothing wrong with supporting a sense of confidence, but without prediction, something to the extent of, ‘I know the strength you have always shown, and that you bring to this challenge’ or ‘You are not alone with this. Your doctors and I are here with you, and will continue to be.’”
To avoid burdening the person with unrealistic expectations or taking care of your feelings. Always ask yourself, “‘Am I saying this to comfort them — or to comfort myself?’” If it’s the latter, it’s probably not something you need to articulate to your loved one.
McBain adds, “The best thing we can do for ourselves and our loved ones is to take time to process our own feelings so we can show up for them in our greatest emotional capacity.”
When to seek professional help
Taking time to care for yourself while someone you love is going through a medical crisis may feel self-indulgent or unfair, but Reiss and McBain stress that it’s neither. “Rather than being selfish or uncaring, it’s wise,” Reiss says. “You cannot be there optimally for someone else if you are struggling.”
It’s vital to recognize the limits on what you can provide emotionally or in terms of time and effort, which actually makes you better equipped to support someone else. Take time for yourself and do things you find comforting and restorative when you can.
McBain adds that “it is critical to have your own sources of support, especially if you’re in a role as a temporary or long-term caregiver.” She frequently recommends seeking the help of support groups when possible.
If your stress or concerns are impacting your daily life, it may be time to seek professional help. If you have any thoughts of harming yourself or notice changes or an increase in risky behaviors like increased substance use, seek professional help as soon as possible, McBain and Reiss advise.
Finally, “be mindful of setting your own boundaries about what you can and can’t offer your loved one,” McBain says. “This can help the person going through the medical crisis know what parts of their experience are safe with you so they can get the best support and you feel equipped to show up for them in the best ways you can.”