Yesterday, I posted eight tips for saying the right thing. As I was thinking about it later, I realized that there are three situations that have me stumped. I just don’t know the right thing to say. If anyone has any suggestions, I’d love to hear them.
1. Crazy behavior. When bad things happen, or in difficult situations, people sometimes act in erratic, unproductive ways. A divorced friend swears by Abigail Trafford’s Crazy Time; Surviving Divorce and Building a New Life as the best book about doing through a divorce; it argues that it’s very common to go through a “crazy time” after separation. During this “crazy time,” “in addition to widespread anger and depression, researchers found a startling incidence of profoundly disturbed behavior.” I’ve seen this happen myself.
Is there a way for a friend gently to suggest when someone is acting crazy? I don’t mean the situation where a person has a distorted picture or a biased view (who doesn’t?); I mean when people are doing things that are actually destructive: a doctor who changes her husband’s chemo prescription without consulting the doctor in charge; a husband who dumps all his wife’s possessions out the window of their tenth-floor apartment. Is there a way for a friend to intervene, without alienating a person who needs a lot of support?
2. The close acquaintance, or the distant friend. I find it harder to find the right words to say to someone who is a close acquaintance, or a friend with whom I’ve fallen out of touch, than to a close friend. How do you show sympathy and support for someone you don’t really know very well? On the one hand, there’s a natural impulse to shy away from someone in pain, which we must fight; on the other hand, the fact is, it’s hard to know what to say or how to act when you’re not already a close part of someone’s life.
3. Usual interests. When someone has lost a job, received a terrible diagnosis, or otherwise is going through some very difficult period, I’m never sure how much to raise topics that would usually be interesting to the person, but seem trivial in light of what’s going on. I remember in one memoir of catastrophe, someone dying of cancer remarked how much she loved it when people would bring her bits of office gossip; it made her feel part of normal life. On the other hand, I worry that that kind of talk seems self-centered and inconsiderate when someone is facing a great personal challenge.
I’m eager to hear people’s suggestions. What have you found is the most helpful approach? If you’ve been on the receiving end, what kind of conversation comforted you most?
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