Dear Jenn is a new blog series in which Jennifer will be answering questions from her readers. This week’s question is from a gentleman in Australia who asks:
“My friend has PTSD from his father passing away from cancer. They were very close and he’s been having panic attacks, nightmares, and episodes of severe depression. His family is Christian, but he hasn’t gone to church since it happened. How can I help him?”
Thanks so much for writing. It’s hard to know how best to help your friend without sitting down in person and getting to know him. However, I can give you some general ideas and you can use your judgement as to what might be useful.
Firstly, if you haven’t already, ask your friend how you can help him. It sounds obvious, but I find it’s a step we often skip. Even if he says that there’s nothing you can do, sometimes just knowing that someone wants to help can be a huge encouragement. Make it clear that you’re available to listen, and just be present with him. Whether that means going out and doing something fun, or staying home and playing a video game or talking, make sure he knows he doesn’t have to be alone. Being alone, particularly on weekends and holidays, tends to bring the sadness and anger out. Make sure he knows he can call or text you when he’s feeling down. If he’s nearby, see if you can pop over to his house on bad days.
Secondly, offer to do things with him that will help him mourn, but that he might feel overwhelmed or isolated doing on his own. For example, offer to go with him to visit his dad’s grave site. Even if you’re not of the same denomination, ask him if he’ll attend his church with you. Or, if you think a different environment might make him more comfortable, invite him to your church or somewhere else nearby that looks like something he’d feel encouraged by. Again, even if he says no, the invite alone is an encouragement.
Maybe see if he’d like to do something special to celebrate his dad’s birthday, Father’s Day, or another holiday … or just do something for fun and to get away from everything! Go on a road trip, camping, have a BBQ, go to a sports event … do something that would either make him happy or that would have made his dad happy. Help him relive happy old memories and build new ones to balance out the sad.
Naturally, you’ll want to avoid things that trigger his panic attacks. It’s OK to ask him what those things are. It could be anything from the smell of his dad’s cologne to a hospital scene in a movie that you’re watching. He might not consciously know himself what his triggers are, but figuring that out will greatly ease his recovery process. He’ll hopefully be able to avoid triggers, or at least mentally brace himself when he does encounter them. If you’re friend does have a panic attack while he’s with you, stay calm, be reassuring, and help him get somewhere private so he doesn’t have the added anxiety of strangers watching him.
Thirdly, if he needs antidepressants or other medication, be understanding and encouraging of that. A lot of people, particularly those who have never needed medication before, may find the lack-of-control over their emotions unsettling and even demeaning. Tell him that sometimes, particularly after a trauma, our bodies get out of whack and we need medication, just as a diabetic needs insulin.
If you got a deep enough cut on your body, you’d put Neosporin and a band-aid on it. If you had just been in a bad car accident, you’d take the painkillers and antibiotics the doctor prescribed. Just so, when you have a severe emotional injury, you may need to metaphorically bandage it or take “painkillers” so you can heal. I used to work for an Anesthesiologist, and one of the things I learned is that if our pain is too great, it can actually slow our healing process because our bodies get overwhelmed and our muscles seize up, exacerbating the situation. This is true of spiritual and emotional pain too. It doesn’t mean there’s anything intrinsically wrong with you; just that you’re injured and – at least for the time being – you need to manage your pain so you can recover.
Of course, if your friend doesn’t want to take medication, that’s a fine choice too, so long as his depression isn’t debilitating (such as, interfering with his ability to perform at work or sleep at night) and he’s not having suicidal thoughts. If he starts talking about suicide, take him very seriously. If you think he’s suicidal, call 911. If he tells you he was at one point or sometimes gets that way, but is not currently, offer to go with him to a counselor, therapist, or medical professional for advice. Obviously you might wait in the waiting room or even end up not going at all, but having that support and comradery can mean the difference between someone getting much needed help or stagnating in depression.
Finally, and most importantly, use your judgement and trust your instincts. Be there for him. Be thoughtful of him. Ask questions. Pray with him and for him. A lot of times people who are in pain push their friends away because they’re embarrassed or afraid of judgement. Don’t let him do that. But at the same time, don’t become an enabler either. If he’s falling into negative behavior patterns or you’re worried he’s coping in a self destructive way, stand up to him as early as possible. The more established those patterns become, the harder it will be to get through to him, and the harder it will be for him to get back on track.
“Faithful are the wounds of a friend; but the kisses of an enemy are deceitful.”
~ Proverbs 27:6
I am really glad he has you as a friend to walk with him through this difficult time. You’re a providential blessing from God. Don’t forget that.
A friend loveth at all times, and a brother is born for adversity.
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