When People You Love Suffer, How do You Know if You are Helping or Causing More Pain?

Suffering and grief are topics we all would prefer to avoid. Unfortunately, every one of us will suffer. And we will all experience someone close to us going through something terrible.

What do you do when you’re that person? How do you help?

Suffering takes many forms. Some people are in tremendous physical pain. A man I once knew had migraine headaches that lasted for weeks at a time. Others are in tremendous emotional pain. And we all grieve losses: of loved ones, of marriages, of jobs. Of the way life was supposed to be.

Over the past several years, I’ve had many occasions which caused me a great deal of suffering. Some were for more extended periods than others. All of them caused deep anguish, drove me closer to God–and furnished me with a handful of positive and a plethora of negative experiences with other people.

I can only speak for myself and a few others with whom I’ve spoken about the experiences they’ve had with people in times of great pain. Additionally, as I’ve only lived in the United States, I don’t know how people in places where daily life is much harder and suffering is endemic respond to sufferers.  I’m guessing they’re better at it than we are.

But what I’ve found is that people in the U.S. tend to be very uncomfortable around those going through significant difficulty. Typically, they say something intended to make you feel better or cheer you up. I don’t discount that they truly do want to help, but if we’re nakedly honest, they also want to alleviate the discomfort they feel with your pain.

I’m a big “Pride and Prejudice” fan. I absolutely love it. But I always find astounding the falseness of Regency society.  People say polite things they clearly don’t mean because that’s how things are done. I used to marvel and think, “How ridiculous!” And then I looked around at our culture. It reminds me of another one of my favorites, “My Fair Lady,” where Professor Higgins assures his mother at a society event that he’s given strict instructions to his protégée to stick to the topics of “the weather and everybody’s health.”

This is what, it seems to me, our society has regressed to. Except instead of “everybody’s health,” (because, of course, we still talk about the weather with vigor) we insert TV shows, sports, and Tweets.

What made my most recent experience of suffering and grief exponentially more painful was a feeling of aloneness. I felt the need to wall myself off from people with their well-meaning comments, and it left me horribly alone in my grief.

Have you ever experienced any of these?  “It was for the best.” “Something will come along.” “He/she wasn’t right for you, anyway.” “God will bring you a better job/girlfriend/boyfriend, etc.” “It’ll all work out.”

The people who say these things, I believe, mean well. But, for the most part, to someone in pain, it’s really not helpful. In fact, it can be hurtful.

So what is helpful?

In my case, I had one friend who knew that nothing she said would or could make me feel better, and she helplessly expressed that the only thing she could think to do was to sit with me in silence like Job’s friends did. I knew that, had she lived close enough, she absolutely would have–and that would’ve been perfect.

The Bible says in Proverbs that “Each heart knows its own bitterness, and no stranger shares its joy.”

It’s okay to feel bad in the midst of suffering and grief. More than okay–it should be expected. Where did we get the idea that we need to be happy every moment? And that if someone around us is down, we’re obligated to offer a platitude in an attempt to cheer them up?

We need to stop this hurtful nonsense right now.

There are far better ways to respond to someone in pain. Here’s one: After you tell them how sorry you are for what they’re going through, ask them what it is that they need or if there is anything you can do to help.

This is a particularly delicate question to ask, since it will cause the other person to feel vulnerable. You may need to ask them on more than one occasion, because it’s frankly terrifying to tell another soul what you really need in your moment of anguish.

Imagine being in bone-deep sorrow, and what you really need is to be held while you cry. No matter how well you know the person, to expose that kind of need is scary. Or what if you really didn’t want to be alone but didn’t feel up to being “up” or to saying anything at all? How comfortable would it be to tell that person that what you’d really like is for them to just sit with you?

When we are suffering, it’s like our innards are exposed, and our natural reaction is to protect them. Can you imagine the healing that could come from another soul coming to you and meeting your very real need with delicacy and grace?

God created us as relational beings. We are designed for relationship with Him and others. When either is lacking in our lives, we will feel it most acutely when we are in pain.

I can say for certain that it has been in times of greatest pain when I have sought God the most, and He has met me–eventually. While I would never–ever–ask for such times, I am thankful for them because of what He has done in me through them.

But people are also part of God’s equation in our lives, and we are all mightily flawed. I’m not suggesting some three-step plan that will work for everyone. In fact, nothing will work for everyone, since we’re all so different. When you encounter a friend or loved one in the midst of suffering or grief, ask God for wisdom in how to deal with them and ask them what they need from you. Please, don’t assume you know.

In America today, there seems to be an ethos of “authenticity.” It’s what we claim to insist on, and we immediately toss anything aside which smacks of being fake. Except for the airbrushed photos we consume. And “reality” shows. And the carefully worded Tweets intended to look casual and spontaneous (and super-cool).

But here’s what is real. Suffering is real. Pain is real. If we truly crave the authentic, walking with someone in the midst of their anguish instead of attempting to get them to move beyond it before they’re ready is as authentic as it gets.

Life and people and relationships are messy. And they will cost us dearly. The sooner we accept–and embrace–this reality, the more authentic we will become.

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Heidi Munson

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