The problem is that we’ve probably never experienced the pain our friend is going through and don’t have a clue what their suffering feels like.
Most people who are hurting can tell horrifying stories about the insensitive and sometimes cruel ways people have responded to their pain. So what can you do?
1. Open lines of communication.
Send a note. Mail a card. Express your love and concern without offering advice and let the person know that you care.
2. Be present.
Show up–physically and through other means. Keep the lines of communications open. People who are hurting, grieving, and suffering feel isolated and alone. It’s common for people to walk alongside them for a few weeks or months but seldom for the long haul, which could mean years or even a lifetime (imagine a widow raising children or someone diagnosed with chronic illness–their grief will overshadow the remainder of their life).
3. Listen with compassion and curiosity.
Don’t provide easy answers and solutions. Ask how you can show support. Don’t quote Scripture–your friend most likely is already clinging to those verses in ways you can’t understand, and they’ll sound trite. Your goal should be to listen 80% of the time and to speak 20%.
You may want to ask them what they miss most, grieve most, fear most. Allow them to express their memories and share their story.
4. Don’t be afraid of emotion and tears.
Many things are worth sorrow and tears. If your friend cries, don’t be afraid to cry with them. And don’t feel pressured into saying something intended to be positive–for instance, “Your husband’s in a better place” or “You can always have another baby” or “At least you look good.”
5. Ask your friend what support looks like to them and offer to help.
Be specific. Offer specific kinds of help–financial, home maintenance, errands/shopping, vehicle maintenance, etc. Or perhaps you can help with party planning for children or decorations for the holidays.
I live with chronic illness, and I’m still learning how to get dinner on the table at night. By 2:00 in the afternoon, it’s difficult for me to walk. But many people assume that because I’m diagnosed and under treatment that I no longer need help. But I’m not alone–many people with chronic illness live with challenges that healthy people do not understand–and those challenges can be isolating and discouraging.
6. Don’t stop checking in.
Dr. Benjamin Mast has written an insightful book titled Second Forgetting (Zondervan 2014). “Second forgetting reflects a spiritual forgetting experienced not only by the person with Alzheimer’s [or other illnesses or who has suffered grief or wounding], but more broadly by their family, friends, and even the church who seeks to care for them.” Birthdays and anniversaries are especially painful for those who have experienced loss.
I was brokenhearted when I was too ill to attend Easter services this past week. My body simply wouldn’t cooperate. And I was grieving the fact that I’d missed out on Christmas and New Year’s, due to emergency brain surgery. I’d looked forward to being with my church family at East with enormous anticipation.
Instead, I remained at home–ill.So I was particularly grieved when a dear friend of mine–a young widow–texted me late that night to tell me her heartache at others’ expectations about how she should be grieving.
Supporting others is a lifetime role. It does not involve placing our expectations upon them but, instead, being Jesus’ hands of mercy to them.
We always help the hurting most when we display gratitude and grace in our own lives as we remember God’s faithfulness, His presence, and His promises in OUR lives. We do not have to preach–living faithfully and loving others gracefully will point them to hope.