I have a friend whose husband unexpectedly passed away. He was young. They have beautiful children. The shock is unfathomable.
This loss has reminded me that any sort of crisis, including grief, has a way of scaring people. It makes us uncomfortable. Some don’t know what to do or say, or worry they’ll say the wrong thing. Some people may not know you’re experiencing a crisis because it’s invisible to the outsider. Still others don’t think they have the time, or money, or talent to help. Whatever the reasons, many people do nothing when faced with someone in crisis. And that is the worst thing you can do.
Our family has had our share of crises over the years. Our four kids were all preemies, and they have several chronic illnesses. They were misdiagnosed for over a decade, and during those years they were labeled with countless mental health diagnoses. They have special needs, all of which are invisible. We know Crisis.
My husband and I have been in nonstop Crisis Mode for almost two decades. And the majority of people did nothing to step up and care for us. There were times we could not get our lawn mowed, or our garbage to the curb for pick up day, or groceries bought. There were times we didn’t sleep for days, when worry was so thick it sat on our chests and consumed us. There were times when we only left the house to go to either doctor or therapy appointments. There were times when our children’s illnesses blotted out any hope we might have held for a happy, healthy future. We have struggled. We know Crisis. But most people didn’t notice. Most people did not reach out. It left us feeling isolated, lonely, unseen. It made us feel alone in our crisis. Most families who experience invisible disabilities or illnesses understand this. This is normal for families like ours.
Humanity is messy. We experience love, loss, desolation, exhilaration, and everything in between. The one thing every human has in common is this: we want to be seen. We want to be loved. We want to know we matter. That’s it. If we could ensure everyone in the world felt loved, understood, and valued, I promise you the world would be a completely different place.
Sometimes the mess of being human is invisible to others. If you happened to run into my friend, who is now a widow, at Walgreens, you wouldn’t be able to tell she just lost her husband. If you see a picture of my family on a Christmas card, you would not know the torture we have been through with our chronic illnesses. Everyone is suffering in some way, because humanity is hard. But you will not always be privy to what others are suffering with. Their trauma, their crisis, may be invisible to you. Just because you cannot see someone’s grief, illness, disability, or challenge, does not mean it does not exist.
Let’s go on the assumption that every person on the planet is in some kind of pain. And let’s treat each other with the care and compassion we want when we are in pain.
Every day I actively look for ways to ease the suffering of others around me. Usually it takes about 10 seconds to make a small impact on another person: let a driver into traffic, hold a door open for someone, hold a grieving friend’s hand, send a text to let a loved one know they’re in your thoughts…ten whole seconds, and you’ve made a tiny ripple of kindness in the world. Who knows when that ripple will turn into a crashing wave?
We each have the power to show up for others. We have the power to sit with someone in their pain, to ensure they know they are not alone. We have the power to make sure each person who crosses our path every day feels seen. Tell the grocery check out lady you love her nails. Tell the Starbucks barista to have a nice day. Say thank you to the mailman for bringing your mail. Look into your child's eyes when they answer your question of how their day was. Ten seconds. They feel seen. They feel validated. They feel appreciated for being uniquely them.
Three days after my friend’s husband passed away, we had a snowstorm dump five inches of white powder overnight. I got my kids ready for their buses and went out to shovel our driveway. As I shoveled, I thought about being a teenager and watching my dad push his little snowblower down first our driveway, and then the neighborhood sidewalks, and then as many driveways as he could muster before going to work. He would come in the house caked with a thick layer of icicles from head to toe, and he would be exhausted and beaming.
My ten-year-old came out to the bus stop, bundled up so tight I could only make out her kind, blue eyes. I had just finished our driveway and was about to walk, shovel in hand, to my friend’s house to clean off her driveway. Like my dad taught me to. I saw my little girl and told her to grab another shovel and walk with me. As we walked, I told her that this is how you show up for someone who is sad. Grief is not contagious, not like an illness. We do not need to be afraid of other people’s grief. But we feel so sad for our friend. And when we know someone is suffering, it is our duty- as fellow humans in this messy shared experience of life- to help her. We do not sit at home doing nothing when we know someone is hurting. We reach out in any way we can think of to let them know we see them, that they are loved. I told my daughter that when we see someone struggling, we help them. Even if it’s just to trudge down to their house in our pj’s and parka at 6:45 am and shovel their driveway.
We need to raise our children in a culture of holding compassion for others. They need to know it is their responsibility to reach out, to make sure others feel affirmed and appreciated. We must model that care for our children. It doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you do something. All of us have gifts, and we are obligated to use those gifts to help others. I have a sweet friend who brought us enough food to feed an army when we were going through an especially rough patch with our kids. Another friend brought flowers to my door one day, just because. Another Mama left a box of smiley face cookies on our doorstep. Some ask when they can see me for a coffee date. This is how you make someone feel seen. This is how you make someone feel cared for. It doesn’t have to be big: most of the time I don’t have the energy or time to make a meal for someone. But I do have time to text them and tell them I’m thinking about them, I care about them. To be honest, that doesn’t feel like much. I wish I could do more. But in the middle of my messy, exhausting, beautiful life, that’s what I can offer right now.
We do not know what invisible crisis someone may be struggling with, so assume they are suffering and reach out a helping hand. Say a kind word. Make someone else’s crisis a little less lonely; make them feel a little less isolated, for even ten seconds. I promise you, the small ripple of compassion you create will change the world.