It's a phenomenon we've all seen or lived: One person's illness ripples through a social network, making second- and third-degree convalescents of family and friends.
Some on the periphery are able to navigate this situation quite well, with the help of food, flowers and frequent phone calls to those at the center of trauma; others seem unable or unwilling to sort through the emotional complexity. This latter group is the subject of a fascinating essay that appears in today's New York Times.
Harriet Brown writes:
Over the last few years, my family has weathered our share of crises.... So we’ve had plenty of opportunities to observe not only how we dealt with trauma but how our friends, family and community did, too. For the most part, we were blessed with support and love; friends ran errands for us, delivered meals, sat in hospital waiting rooms, walked, talked and cried with us. But a couple...disappeared entirely.
Psychologists are only starting to understand the way we respond to other people's traumas, says Brown. She refers to Lucile Packard Children's Hospital pediatrician Barbara Sourkes, MD, PhD, who helps families coping with a child's serious illness:
Feelings of vulnerability can lead to a kind of survivor’s guilt: People are grateful that the trauma didn’t happen to them, but they feel deeply ashamed of their reactions. Such emotional discomfort often leads them to avoid the family in crisis; as Dr. Sourkes put it, "They might, for instance, make sure they’re never in a situation where they have to talk to the family directly."
Awkwardness is another common reaction - not knowing what to say or do. Some people say nothing; others, in a rush to relieve the feelings of awkwardness, blurt out well-intentioned but thoughtless comments, like telling the parent of a child with cancer, "My grandmother went through this, so I understand."
"We have more of a societal framework for what to say and do around bereavement than we do when you’re in the midst of it," Dr. Sourkes said. "Families say over and over, 'It’s such a lonely time and I don’t have the energy to educate my friends and family, yet they don’t have a clue.'"