It just happened.

You discover an infidelity; a partner signals an intention to separate; someone has passed away; there’s been some kind of personal tragedy.

In the midst of anguish life feels totally out of control; is turned upside down; is overwhelming. Anguish, in the midst of a horrible unplanned life event is normal.

Feelings can range from deep sadness to loss to anger to grief. Depending on the incident there can also be a sense of shame or embarrassment. Regardless, these awful feelings are often accompanied by a sense of isolation and confusion as well as a sense of urgency to quickly address the source of trouble.

Your experience of anguish may spill onto a loved one, a friend, perhaps even a total stranger.

What do you do and what do those around you do?

The challenge in the moment is to recognize as stated above, that anguish in the midst of a horrible unplanned life event is normal. As bad as it feels though, it won’t last forever. With the passage of time, with or without help, that terrible all-engulfing sense of anguish subsides.

The real challenge in the moment is to allow oneself to feel the pain and for those who seek to provide support, to allow the feeling of pain. In fact, that is all anyone typically has to do in the moment: Feel or bear witness to the feeling.

In feeling we discharge the pain; we acknowledge the hurt; we externalize the upset.

Unless someone is at risk of immediate harm, there is nothing else to do. This is not the time to blame; seek solutions; determine accountability; seek recourse.

As friends or loved ones, we do not propose solutions; we also do not seek to determine blame. Any planning is restricted only to the moment and is only directed towards determining and facilitating immediate safety: Is the person in anguish safe – either with themselves or in the context of their situation. The only planning is to provide for immediate safety. In safety, the anguish can be expressed.

Whatever does need to happen the result of the triggering event, it is most often best if that action waits until the anguish has subsided. Despite the intensity of the anguish, the response must be appropriate and not determined as only an outcome of the degree of anguish. The response must be measured and not inadvertently magnified lest the response create further hardship.

We wait for anguish to subside for clearer thinking to return whereby reasonable decisions can be made. As those who would provide support (friends, family, clergy, third party interveners) we withhold action, we contain, we provide safety. We wait until such time as the one affected can think past the pain to make plans or prepare a response reasonable to the circumstance and one that will not necessarily inflame matters. We gain our composure to come back meaningfully and hopefully those around us facilitate that process and don’t agitate solely for retribution, blame or compensation.

As awful as the anguish is, a response developed ahead of gaining one’s composure can lead to a perpetuation and even escalation of issues.

So, what do you do? In the moment:

1) Feel your pain;
2) Hold on – use supports if necessary;
3) Be safe;
4) Gain composure – catch your breath.


Author's Bio: 

Gary Direnfeld, MSW, RSW
(905) 628-4847
Gary Direnfeld is a social worker. Courts in Ontario, Canada, consider him an expert in social work, marital and family therapy, child development, parent-child relations and custody and access matters. Gary is the host of the TV reality show, Newlywed, Nearly Dead, parenting columnist for the Hamilton Spectator and author of Marriage Rescue: Overcoming the ten deadly sins in failing relationships. Gary maintains a private practice in Dundas Ontario, providing a range of services for people in distress. He speaks at conferences and workshops throughout North America and was the first social worker to sit on the Ontario Board for Collaborative Family Law.