Choreographing a Crisis

As a chaplain and pastor, I am inevitably with folks during periods of crisis, trauma, and chaos.  One of my mantras that I repeat time and time again to families during such times is, “Your crisis. Your call. Your choreography.”

I say this because often folks try to please everyone else in their extended family, or attempt to do everything their friends tell them they should do. To be clear, community members are vital during crisis, trauma, and chaos, but those immediately impacted have the right to choose what they need and when they need it.

For example, I was with parents who were ready to withdraw life supporting apparatus after their child had been declared brain-dead, but were debating leaving all apparatus in place because extended family members said it was “too soon.” The parents were ready to “end the brutal suffering,” yet felt “guilty” after speaking with family members. While speaking with the parents, I told them I agreed with their family members in that it was indeed “too soon,” because children simply should not die. I also told them to trust their gut feelings and each other as they made the decision no parent should ever have to. Their crisis. Their call. Their choreography.

I have friends who are going through a divorce, and extended family members and friends are making comments about them “not being upset enough.” When a mutual friend made such a comment to me about the couple I said, “You don’t know what you don’t know, and neither of us is married to either of them.” One of the spouses called me after hearing from family members that she/he “seemed fine” and “seemed to be moving on with life too quickly.” She/he stated that she/he wanted to tell said family member just how bad the past few years have been and to mind their own business. So I reminded her/him, “Your crisis. Your call. Your choreography.”

During life threatening hospitalization, hospice, and death especially, it seems everyone is an expert on how best to handle everything. And, typically advice comes from a genuine place of wanting to help those in pain. However, there is a fine line between true support and getting judgey with it. I’ve had extended family members pull me aside to say that Johnny isn’t crying enough, Jane isn’t letting anyone help her, Ron is eating too much, and Mary is being rude to people when they try to get her to go home and sleep. What they are saying is often true, but what’s also true is that Johnny, Jane, Ron, and Mary are coping as best they can in the moment based on what works for them. We don’t all cope the same way, and we sure don’t all grieve the same way. In those hallway conversations I often remind extended friends and family members that they aren’t there 24/7 and don’t see Johnny crying,  Jane letting nurses bring her lunch, Ron going for a walk, or Mary taking a nap in the uncomfortable recliner. And when Johnny, Jane, Ron, and Mary come to me after being “fussed at” or “judged” by their friends and family I repeat, “Your crisis. Your call. Your choreography.”

Long gone are the days of cordial chicken casseroles “fixing” everything.  If you’re supporting someone in a time of crisis, chaos, or trauma, ask what they need. They may need to leave the hospital for an hour to get a haircut. They may need Twizzlers. They may need three kinds of macaroni and cheese. They may need someone to pick up the dog from the vet. They may need meals in the freezer for when they are back home from the hospital. They may need their toilet cleaned. Ask them.

And if you’re the one in crisis, be honest about what you need. When my mom was in the hospital, folks wanted to bring meals to the house, which was a generous and kind gesture, except Dad and I were never home to eat. So, I told folks if they wanted to do something to send gift cards instead. A few folks said it was “rude” of me to “request specifics,” and perhaps it was. However, the 3am iced coffee from the hospital Starbucks via gift cards from folks we love and who love us was a great comfort and exactly what we needed. It was our crisis and our call and we choreographed it in the way that worked for us.

These days there are many user-friendly websites for keeping folks updated and scheduling truly helpful support. Just a few sites in case you’re not familiar with them: Caring Bridge, Take Them A Meal, What Friends Do, Care Calendar.  Often there are sites specific to geographic location, illness, and situation, so clergy, hospital employees, counselors, and social workers in your area are great resources for that information. I highly recommend such sites, as practical, much-needed support is vital and essential. Nobody needs a crisis, but during a crisis everybody needs somebody.


  1. Amy Talmadge · · Reply

    When I had a miscarriage in 1996, a Circle member from our church got the cat food we didn’t have time to shop for. I got many cards and prayers from many people which have been tucked away, but I will never forget the love in that bag of cat food!

  2. So, so wise and beautiful, Ashley-Anne. From reading this, my ministry has been guided by God and enhanced through you, my wonderful sister in Christ and my sister in ministry :-). Love, Jenn McGee

  3. Reblogged this on Glimpsing God and commented:
    This is a great post written by my friend, Ashley-Anne Masters, who lost her mother to cancer back in January. Ashley-Anne is a pastor and hospital chaplain, so she is very familiar with both grief and with keeping others company as they journey through grief. I personally think this post should be required reading for . . . well, everybody, but in particular those going through crisis, and those interacting with people in crisis. And let’s face it, that’s going to be all of us at some point or another.

    Additionally, it’s important to remember that some people, unintentionally, will try to make YOUR crisis about THEM – their grief, their need to be needed, their past history surrounding loss, their ego. As with everything in life, it is important to set boundaries. Not only is it important, it’s healthy.

  4. Michelle Hennessy · · Reply

    Thank you Ashley-Anne. I hope many read this and ash what they can do to help – not just what will make them feel good.

  5. I’ve been saying that phrase “you don’t know what you don’t know” (4th paragraph) for decades and have never heard anyone else use it until this article. When confused, baffled or perplexed I say it as a reminder to myself and/or as a helpful thought for a friend/family to consider. I’m barely an expert about my own life! … much less someone else’s. (ps – about the gift of catfood mentioned above? when my father died, in addition to all the flowers I was also especially grateful to the friend who left a grocery bag at my door with toilet paper, kleenex, and freezor-proof Reynold’s Wrap and Ziploc bags for all the food people brought me).

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