Not knowing the right words to say or things to do when a loved one is struggling prevents many of us from even trying at all. And by right, I mean what we view as the magical words or actions that will enable those we care about to make progress, improve, feel better, or at the very least, not feel worse. If you get caught in this bind, recognize it for what it is: the very human fear of not getting it right. But ignore this fear. I can tell you from long experience that there’s no right or wrong when reaching out to a loved one to communicate your care and concern.
Remember, it’s the little things that matter. Recently when I was on leave from Vinfen, my dad sent me a greeting card. This action was a statement in itself. So few people nowadays send snail mail and my dad, a scientist who is rather fond of email, does not usually make a trip to the Hallmark store, let alone purchase a stamp. The front of the card had a black and white photograph of a bulldog with Winston Churchill’s famous quotation below it, “Never, never, never give up.” Sometimes when we don’t know quite what to say, it’s helpful to mention a title of a book, song, or movie that is particularly meaningful and has bolstered us in times of trouble.
Not only is there a fear about saying or doing the wrong thing, there’s also the conundrum of why should I act if I don’t have the ability or power to make it better? While I was gone from Vinfen, I had many phone conversations with my mom where she said, “You sound awful.”
“Yep, I’m miserable,” I replied.
“Since there’s nothing I can say to help you feel better,” she said. “Why don’t we get off the phone?”
And, inevitably, I would respond, amid awkward and uncomfortable long pauses and silence, “No, let’s stay on the phone.”
I wasn’t able to express this at the time, but in retrospect, I’m extremely grateful for those who reached out and tried to connect with me—and kept trying despite obstacles. When I didn’t answer the phone, accept visits, or talk to people with enthusiasm, it was almost never because I didn’t value the people who care about me or understand that they wanted to help me. It was just that I didn’t have the emotional or physical bandwidth to connect with them at that moment. Looking back, I can honestly say that few things other than people simply trying to support and connect to me were more powerful and influential to my recovery.
So try. Try again. A card, some flowers in a plastic vase, and regular phone calls and/or emails are all ways you can show your support and care for someone who is struggling.