Have you ever noticed that when something bad happens to you or to someone close to you in your life (like a son or daughter, or a parent), some friends might offer help, while others disappear? This seemingly becomes more the case as we get older.

I was reading this interesting essay in The New York Times today and stumbled upon an explanation for this behavior — the guy quoted in the article called it “stiff arming” or “pseudo-care.” A friend offers help to you in your time of need, but then disappears.

Why do people do this? Are they afraid bad luck is “catching”?

The author of this essay describes how both her daughters suffered serious health problems in the same year — one from a rare disease, and the other from anorexia. Then she noticed that some of her long-time friends seemingly disappeared for nearly the entire year, coinciding with her daughters’ health problems.

The friends who had disappeared had daughters exactly the same age as ours.

[Dr. Jackson Rainer, a professor of psychology at Georgia Southern University] describes this kind of distancing as “stiff-arming” — creating as much space as possible from the possibility of trauma. It’s magical thinking in the service of denial: If bad things are happening to you and I stay away from you, then I’ll be safe.

Such people often wind up offering what Dr. Rainer calls pseudo-care, asking vaguely if there’s anything they can do but never following up. Or they might say they’re praying for the family in crisis, a response he dismisses as ineffectual at best. “A more compassionate response,” he said, “is ‘I am praying for myself to have the courage to help you.’ ”

True empathy inspires what sociologists call instrumental aid. “There are any number of tasks to be done, and they’re as personal as your thumbprint,” Dr. Rainer said.

If you really want to help a family in crisis, offer to do something specific: drive the carpool, weed the garden, bring a meal, do the laundry, go for a walk.

The author of the essay, Harriet Brown, also notes that, “The more vulnerable people feel, the harder it may be to connect.”

Indeed, I suspect this reaction comes down more to an individual’s sense of vulnerability and security in the world. Some people are simply not comfortable around other people’s adversity. It’s the same kind of feeling many of us have while visiting someone in the hospital — What do you say? How can you help? You feel awkward and out of place.

Even though it is indeed “magical thinking” to believe that distancing oneself from others’ trauma will somehow make us more safe, it’s one that we irrational human beings can’t help from engaging in.

But the solutions suggested are a good way to help combat the thinking in others. Ask your friends to help out with specific things — the more specific the better. This may not stop others from their distancing behavior, but it has a good chance of making yourself feel less isolated. It also makes them feel like they’re doing something that is actually helping you, which is an empowering feeling.

If you’re on the other side of the coin and find that you’re isolating yourself from a friend who has had some crisis in their life, reach out to them. Ask them for specific things you might do to help. It may be just the boost they’re looking for to lighten their day.

Read the full article: Coping With Crises Close to Someone Else’s Heart.