Let me start off by saying I’m not a professional. I’ve never had a counseling class, and this isn’t a post about “fixing” people. The list below are things that help me through trauma, but they may not be for everyone, and they are not a cure.
That being said, I’ve gained a lot of experience in having someone I love in danger.
Sometimes I can physically do something about the danger. For instance, if my Type 1 Diabetic sister is taking a shot on her bed and an unobservant teenager starts jumping on it, I can throw that teen across the room.
But other times the danger is a sort that I have no control over. I can’t protect my loved ones from mental illnesses. I can’t protect my loved ones from war. I can’t protect them from accidents. I can be supportive. I can be with them sometimes. But I can’t stop it. I can’t undo it.
The person suffering is due their own amount of grief and pain for their affliction. I have Rheumatoid Arthritis, and I’ve been the sufferer myself. But I believe the observer has their own sort of (equally valid, but different) pain. It’s hard to be an observer and find outlets for processing because, since you aren’t the afflicted one, you don’t want to draw attention to yourself. It sounds wrong to admit that you need some time and support to deal with stuff that happened to someone else.
Below are some mechanisms that I’ve noticed help me when I am an observer, and someone I love is in danger or hurt. There are instances where you can take an active role in someone’s safety or recovery, but this list is more about those situations that are completely out of your control, though there is often a blurry boundary.
Don’t say every goodbye as if it’s the last time you’ll say it, but do say every goodbye intentionally. Look your loved one in the eye. Hug them. Tell them that you love them. Exchange some jokes. Don’t pretend it’s the end, but do make sure you won’t regret your moments together if they are the last.
Don’t leave things unsaid.
Allow yourself to think the unthinkable: What if it happens? What if you lose this person? Are there things you’ve left unsaid or unresolved? Sometimes it helps to write these down in a letter. Seek resolution if you can.
Build your own support team. Find the friends who can handle the serious stuff—whose response will be supportive, or who will help you laugh and take your mind off it (ideally both). Intentionally identify who these people are so that when a bad moment comes you can go to them for immediate respite / support, instead of holding it all in and feeling unheard and alone.
Don’t be afraid of grieving.
I don’t recommend worrying—and, yes, I think there is a difference between grieving for something that hasn’t happened and worrying about something that might. It’s okay to say, “I am sad about this situation and I will be more sad if it gets worse.” It is okay to cry and to not be strong for a little while.
Write, draw, sing, play. Express yourself however you can.
Form a plan.
If the worst happens, what’s the plan? How will you tell people? Who needs to travel where? Though it sounds morbid, putting some thought into this gives you a measure of control. You don’t waste time being paralyzed because you have an action list prepared, and even if using it means the worst has happened, it’s still there. Make the plan, write it somewhere accessible, but don’t obsess over it. This focused time of consideration can displace days and months of unproductive anxious fretting.
Talk. Say it out loud.
Find someone to talk to—a mentor or that friend mentioned above. Say it all. Get it out.
This includes prayer. I don’t mean the little “keep them safe” tacked on just before you go to sleep. Every dark fear or angry thought or not-Sunday-School-approved feeling—get it out. Be intentional. Push yourself to the about-to-throw-up level of honesty.
I know I said this is for the situations where you have no control over what’s happening, but there are still things you can be proactive about. Shoulder some of the weight. Ask the person if there’s anything you can do—even if it’s forming that chain of communication and making sure people know what they need to know. Be the sounding board for another observer, and let them unload on you. Taking some of the burden will make you feel more in control.
Don’t spend all your time thinking about this or imagining the possibilities. Stay busy. Keep living your life. Do things with your hands. I personally recommend ironing. One time I ironed everything in every closet of my five person family’s house. It didn’t solve the situation but it felt a little less chaotic by the end.
Find things to love.
It sounds trite, but it’s true: Even in dark circumstances, there is joy. I do not mean happiness. I mean the soul-deep joy that comes from seeing the sun shine through green spring leaves, or hearing a soprano hit the perfect note, or smelling the pages of a new book.
Find the tiny things that make the world less dark, and love them.