Tonight I ate dinner with a friend whose dad is dying of cancer. When he shared this with me, I was shocked, and we spent some time talking about it. Like anyone else, I started feeling helpless, wanting to fix the situation for him and his family. My heart ached for them, knowing the painful, ultimately devastating, road they had begun traveling.
Something else also struck me about our conversation, and that was how comfortable I felt with the subject matter. I wasn't uneasy, like I would have been many years ago when my life had not had so many challenges. My experiences with sickness, pain, loss, and death had prepared me for a moment like this, to know what to say and what not to say.
Each case is different, and each person is different in what they need when they are hurting. But when someone you love or care for has their world shaken to the core, what should you say? What should you do? It's easy to just pull away and disassociate yourself from the situation so you don't do or say anything wrong. But rejection is the worst thing you can do to a person in pain.
Here is a short list of do's and don'ts when someone in your life is hurting deeply:
1. Listen. You may feel like you aren't doing anything, but the best thing you can do is listen because someone who is hurting needs to talk about it. Don't force them to talk about it, but make sure they know you are available, and make yourself available to listen when they seem down.
2. Ask questions. This isn't like "interrogate until they yield" or "be as nosy as possible for your own gossip." This is thoughtful questioning like, "how does that make you feel?" or "what do the doctors want to do next?"
3. Affirm. This is SO important. Make sure that you make them feel their feelings are valid. You can cause someone twice as much pain as they already feel by denying, minimizing, or putting down their feelings. Keep in mind that if you have never been in their situation that you might feel and do the same things they are doing if put in their place. None of us knows how we will react to something until we are tested. Say things like, "wow, that must have made you so angry!" or even something as simple as "your feelings are natural and valid for anyone in your circumstances." The person in pain may try to "put a bright face on things" in order to make you feel less burdened. Keep this in mind and draw out their true feelings so they don't feel like they have to pretend around you.
4. Actively look for practical ways to help. If they work all day and are really tired, see if you can bring them a meal so they don't have to cook. If you know they need something at the store, offer to go get it for them. If they have to go for medical tests, offer to drive and sit with them. This active listening and looking is an art more than a science. Have your radar going when talking to them. Pray that God will show you how to help this person. If you don't know what to do, send cards, write notes, call. Let them know you are thinking of them on a regular basis. Ask for updates. Be available.
5. Focus on the little stuff. The smallest things mean the most to a person in pain. A note, a kind word, a funny joke, a card, an invite for coffee, a visit, an email, a donut, a conversation, a dinner, a movie watching party, a phone call, a mix CD, a tiny gift, a foot-rub, a small favor-- all these inexpensive things are of infinite value when a person feels lonely and in pain. The key is: you can't solve their problem, but you can make it easier for them to cope by just being a little extra thoughtful.
6. Be forgiving. The person in pain is usually in new territory. They do not know how to handle these strong emotions they are feeling. Let them vent, rant, rave, act uncharacteristically abrupt. Be forgiving if they don't get back to you-- even when you want to do something nice for them. Sometimes it's just too much effort to pick up the phone or to get back to someone. Be understanding of that. Don't take it personally. The person in pain is dealing with serious and important things and shouldn't have to worry about you getting annoyed or angry with them over petty stuff.
1. Compare trivial "pain" in your life to their great pain. If you talk about being upset over missing work due to the flu, or being tired from a late night out and the person you are talking to can't work, or can't go out socializing, your comments will come off more as rubbing salt into an already painful wound. More often than not, these comparisons trivialize their experience and also make them feel like you aren't listening and really hearing their unique situation for what it is.
2. Suddenly act weird. They will notice. Just don't do it. Treat them as normally as possible within the bounds of their circumstances. They are the same human being they were before the pain.
3. Pull away. It's not fair to the person who is hurting to be rejected and to lose friends on top of what they are already going through. If you don't know what to do or say, just tell them, "boy, I don't know what to do or say." Chances are your honesty and transparency will mean more than any "line" you could deliver.
4. Tell the person, "Let me know if I can help." Of course you can help. They have enough problems already without having to think up ways for you to feel like you are helping. This is your test to really listen to them and figure out what will really mean the most to that person. Even if you can't do anything to help fix the "big problem(s)" you can do something to put a smile on their face so they feel less alone.
5. Do one nice thing and then stop. You are never done being a friend or family member, so your caring for them should never stop with one act of kindness. This isn't something to cross off your list. People in pain are people in need, period. If you know someone with a chronic condition, continue to be there for them 5 months, 10 months, 2 years down the line. When all the cards and flowers fade from an initial diagnosis or tragic event, the grief and isolation can grow painfully worse while one-time helpers just move on with their day to day lives. Acute problems get a lot of attention. Things that are chronic and invisible like grief or progressive conditions often do not get much help after that initial first swell of compassion.
6. Tell them how to cope. How would a dragging major league baseball player feel if a little leaguer kept running up to him after every failed at-bat just to tell him how to correct his swing? Annoyed at best. Don't tell people how to feel or what you think they MUST do or try. Maybe your aunt was cured from cancer by eating nothing but mashed carrots. Great! Do not tell them that they have to do that too or risk offending you. You can share your story with them, but be very clear that this is your personal story/idea, and not something you are pressuring them to do. Do not tell them they are in pain because they don't have enough faith, or enough prayer, or enough.... anything. It's not your job to explain to them how to fix a big league situation. Just be content to sit on the sidelines and cheer them on. Let the person decide what advice they will follow on their own. If they want your advice, they will ask for it. Seriously.
I'd like to point out that all these suggestions do not require much from the friend/relative other than overcoming fear, self-involvement, and a feeling of uneasiness that's due to the unpleasant nature of pain.
It's technically very easy to be supportive to people in pain. If you are honest, concerned, and compassionate, you can be a great asset to a person fighting a tremendously difficult battle. If your friend is crying, cry with them. If they need to laugh, laugh with them. In doing so, you will be a warrior fighting along side them in their personal battle.
The bottom line is, don't get scared because you are in unfamiliar territory. You will constantly be meeting people who are fighting battles, going through grief, and bearing burdens of suffering. These tips can be applied again and again. Start practicing now, and it will become second nature.
Like one who takes away a garment on a cold day, or like vinegar poured on soda, is one who sings songs to a heavy heart.