The Only Question You Need in a Crisis
I was sitting at a stranger’s kitchen table. In fact, I was surrounded by strangers. Strangers who had, with a single text at one o’clock in the morning, become my sisters. There were people congregated in the living room and sitting at the table with me and on the kitchen floor when I asked the only question you’ll ever need.
You may be wondering what text message could possibly draw you to a stranger’s home in the middle of the night. The text I received said, “My fiancé died today. He loved me,” and the person who sent it was my best friend. My best friend who had just moved out of her apartment a few days earlier and hadn’t yet told me her new address. Once I saw the text, I began calling her phone obsessively, grappling with what this text message could mean, desperately hoping that there had been some kind of mistake, all while fearing that my friend, too, was in grave peril.
I have never been more grateful for Mark Zuckerberg’s monster in my life! I got on her Facebook page and began, with the fervor of a cyber-stalker, looking through her enormous list of friends. I began to private message everyone I thought was a potential lead, and an agonizing 20 minutes later got a reply that said that my best friend was safe and finally asleep. I got the address; then I promptly packed a bag with Kleenex and booze, called our boss and told him I didn’t know when I’d be back to work (turns out she had texted him too), and drove myself into a teary-eyed stranger’s home, uninvited.
While trying to make myself comfortable in these unfamiliar surroundings in the middle of the night, I began softly and tenderly coaching myself: “She is going to need you for a long time. You will have to grieve for him, and you will have to grieve for the life your best friend was supposed to have. But right now you can choose to simply show up” and I did.
I did not tell myself to be strong or power through. I did not diminish my own pain or needs. I did not martyr myself. Even if I did have energy for these things, my friend is the sort that doesn’t allow any of her friends to diminish themselves, so doing it in this time and place was not an option.
I partnered with myself and honored that I was in pain and decided that I had the capacity because of the pain, not in spite of it. I couldn’t truly show up for her until I had showed up for myself, and I had.
At this moment, the phone rang.
Her cellphone showed her fiancé’s area code but a number we didn’t recognize. I had been sitting on the living room floor in that grief dream state when I heard the ring and heard her say, “Oh, shit,” as she dropped the phone and hit the floor. I may have jumped over the couch to get to her, I’m not sure, but then I was there beside her and asked her if I could put the call on speakerphone. To my surprise there was another woman suddenly at the table with me. She might have also leaped over the couch; she seemed like that kind of woman.
Together we listened as the coroner’s gentle voice continued what he had been saying. I imagine that my friend was not the first person to drop a phone in his ear that day. I took one of his pauses as an opportunity to introduce myself, to let him know that he was on speakerphone with us, and to ask if he could continue to speak to me, too. He was very good at his job and started to relay all the information he had.
Together, the other woman and I began to ask every question that came to mind. Because I am trained to work with people in crisis, I am fully aware of how limited our capacity to think and make sound decisions is when our brains are in crisis mode. I know that physiologically our body has prepared itself for fight-flight-or-freeze and moved all of the blood to our extremities in preparation for one of these three responses. This primitive response and our intuition serve us well when we face an attacker; however, the lack of blood in our brain does us disservice when the attack is emotional rather than physical.
I knew I had suffered a trauma and I knew that I was not thinking clearly, had not expected the call, had never in my life considered the questions that I would ask a coroner about my loved-ones’ remains and knew that my best friend was counting on me to show up for her.
That is when I asked the only question you’ll ever need in any traumatic situation: “What questions should I be asking that I’m not asking?”
In this instance with the coroner, and in so many other professionals in more and less dire circumstances, I have asked this question to the same result. Nearly everyone says “Wow. That’s a great question,” and then something to the effect of “you’ve already asked some really good questions but…” or “let’s see what else we haven’t yet covered…” and then they bring forward their infinitely better informed expertise to the conversation in a powerfully invested way.
The next time you are in pain, or shock or stunned disbelief, remember you have never done this before, but the person delivering the news does it every day. You do not have to be the expert, but you are talking to one.
There is a divine simplicity and freedom in recognizing that you do not need to have all of the “right” questions to receive all of the information you need. I gift this question to you, dear reader, in the hopes that it serves and frees you the way it has served and freed me.
Kristii MacEwen is the owner of Mindful Passings©, a crisis concierge and end-of-life coaching practice which helps clients and their families work through the most difficult times of their life by empowering them with resources, experience and guidance. Visit www.mindfulpassings.com. email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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