An image of a boy holding a carton sign that says help.

How to support during times of crisis: 3 simple lessons from a disaster zone

April 24, 2020

In June 2018, I suddenly and unexpectedly found myself thrown into the chaotic aftermath following the tragic eruption of Guatemala’s Volcán de Fuego. My reason for being there was clear: to help locate our youth and their families, find out what they needed, and support however we could (at the time I was working with SERES, one of the few organizations with a history of working in the area). Giving our proximity to the disaster (we had an agricultural training center located at Ground Zero) and our close personal ties with youth and community leaders, our organization – with me at the helm – soon found itself unwittingly at the center of the disaster relief efforts.

There are many things I saw and experienced that I will never forget. Days on end at the local primary school that had become a temporary morgue, working to get the Red Cross refrigerated storage for their heartbreaking work; sitting with survivors who had lost their entire family; moving in and out through temporary shelters and medical facilities, desperately searching for familiar faces. Moments of deep sadness. Moments of incredible bravery. Moments of small triumphs. That is what a human tragedy of this kind is all about.

I learned a lot from that terrible event – about disaster planning, emergency responses, and how even in a situation like this the voice of local people is constantly left out. But perhaps the most important lesson I learned during those never-ending, emotionally exhausting days was how to put my needs aside and show up for others in a way that was constructive, empowering and supportive. I also, sadly, had ample opportunity to observe what it looked like when it wasn’t done well. After 4 weeks on the frontline, I found myself wincing every time I heard the words “I want to help”…having learned the hard way that if I couldn’t find some meaningful way to satisfy that demand, then I would be met with frustration, criticism and at times even anger. I also found myself as an unofficial and unapologetic photo-bomber after witnessing too many examples of distraught survivors being handed over food or clothing, to be quickly followed up with a request for a selfie from a smiling, self-satisfied ‘helper’.

What did I take away from all of this? I came to understand that our need to feel useful should not overpower the needs and desires of those we are trying to help, and the help itself should not be a constant reminder of people’s hardship. I realized that for those of us in the privileged position to support others in times of need, it wasn’t enough just to want to help. We have a responsibility to search for ways to do it with dignity and grace, that uplifts and empowers those that we are supporting.

Over the last few weeks, I have found myself on the receiving end of other people’s well-intentioned but perhaps-not-so-well-executed need to help me. Rather than feeling supported, I felt confused and overwhelmed, guilty because I wasn’t more grateful, and in the worst of the situations I actually came close to a panic attack. It has reminded me of those days in the survivor’s shelters in Escuintla.

During this time of COVID-19 with so much need all around us, we are presented every day with the opportunity to show up and support others. But we must also take care. The powerlessness that a global disaster like Coronavirus causes can be so acutely distressing – particularly for those of us that are problem solvers – that our impulse to do something for someone can be difficult to control. So let me share the 3 lessons that I learned from working in a disaster zone about how to support during times of crisis:

  1. Check your motivation: if you hear yourself using language like “I want to” or “I need to”, stop and check in with yourself. Is this in service of you, or the other person? Are you using someone else’s pain and suffering as a way to satisfy your need to feel useful? Before going any further, try and let go of your own need and focus on supporting the other person;
  2. Give some space: I have found that one of the most powerful questions to ask someone who is facing a challenging situation is simply “what do you need?” Don’t be surprised if you don’t get a response straight away. Oftimes I find that the person is so distraught or caught up in their anguish that they haven’t had a chance to think about what could help them move forward. That’s okay. Don’t try to force an answer, just let them know that you are there if and when they are ready;
  3. Finally, offer your support: sometimes the previous question brings clarity, sometimes the answer is simply “I don’t know.” Either way, after you’ve created that moment for reflection, then you can follow up with “how can I help?”. Notice how different this is from “I want to help”. It gives the other person agency and their need doesn’t become entangled with your desire. It also creates space to find the best solution – if they need emotional support but you can only offer practical, it probably isn’t the best match. But you could help them find the resources they need.

These may seem like very small things, but I have found them incredibly powerful. In my own experience I have found that they help me to slow down, get perspective and – ultimately – show up in the best way possible for those that I am trying to support. So why not give it a try? I’d love to hear what you think.

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