There are many times when someone we know is struggling with pain, loss, or grief, and we want to show some kind of comfort or support. But good intentions don’t always become helpful outcomes, and at times a well-meaning word can actually be quite painful.
For several years I was dealing with the symptoms and repercussions of having a brain tumor. During that time there were plenty of people who showed sympathy, but few who showed empathy—actually coming alongside me and accepting my struggles and emotions. Those were the people I needed most, though at times it was difficult for me to receive help from anyone. It made a significant difference to have individuals who accepted me as I was, even at my weakest point, and showed true, loving, empathy.
If you want to be one of those people for someone who is hurting, here are four important tips:
1. There is a time to speak, and a time to be silent
What hurting people often need the most is someone to listen to them. It can be difficult to find a safe place to freely express emotions, especially when many people feel the need to give a response or some form of encouragement. But statements that minimize the problem demonstrate that you don’t really understand what they are feeling. Looking on the “bright side” can also send some negative underlying messages (even when unintended). For example:“Don’t worry, I’m sure things will get better…” might communicate “Your emotions are irrational.”
“You should be glad you’re still alive!” could sound like “You’re not being grateful enough.”
“At least you don’t have to deal with what [name] faced!” might suggest “Your circumstances and feelings aren’t as valid as someone else’s.”
Our tendency to want to fix problems can make staying silent feel awkward, especially when we think we have a solution or at least a practical way to help. But even if we do have a good idea, that might not be the comfort needed when emotions are being shared. Instead, a shoulder to cry on, a hand to hold, or a genuine hug can speak more than a thousand words.
Active listening is also valuable when someone is processing events, thoughts, or feelings. Your body language (muscle movement, eye contact, facial expressions) will show whether or not you’re listening, and simple phrases acknowledging what she is trying to express will help her feel heard.
There are also times when words are helpful. More often than not, it is after you’ve done a good bit of listening. Your friend will be much more receptive to anything you say if he feels heard and understood. But even when someone asks for advice in a difficult situation, it is important to maintain a humble approach rather than coming across as believing you have all the answers. Helping brainstorm and process possible next steps can be more effective than giving step-by-step instructions.
2. Explanations don’t help
In complex or difficult situations we like to find some stability in “figuring out” the reason behind it. When someone hurting poses the age-old “Why?” question, we may even feel obligated to find some way to explain or justify what tragedy happened, what loss he endured, what sickness was eating away at her body.
The book of Job paints a similar scenario: a righteous man loses his family, his home, his security, and his health… and wants to know why! His friends made a good effort to be silent for the first few days, but eventually they too wanted to come up with an explanation, a solution. We see similar ones then and now. God must be trying to teach you something. Maybe God is punishing you—you should confess whatever you did. If you had more faith, he would heal you.
Job refuted every explanation given. In the same way, someone hurting is very possibly unready to accept what reason are suggested. More often than not, “Why?” is mostly an expression of anger, confusion, and hurt, rather than a request for a logical analysis.
Not only that, but our explanations very well might be wrong! At the end of the book, Job’s friends are chastised; God says, “I am angry with you…because you have not spoken of me what is right as my servant Job has.” Their were instead hurtful toward Job.
When I was sick, I heard multiple times the suggestion that if I had more faith, God would heal me. I greatly struggled with feelings of guilt and defeat when others put the blame on me. Their explanations were well-intentioned, but hurtful. What I needed most was someone to accept the doubts and questions I faced and offer support as I looked to God and his Word for comfort and truth. Some questions may never be fully answered while still on earth; the outcome of the healing process is more about acceptance and learning than explanations.
3. Show love in ways the person can receive
For many people, one of the struggles of being in a time of weakness or pains is the need for support from others. It can be difficult to ask for help, especially for some of use who feel we might be a burden to to others. One of the ways to communicate love is unsolicited acts of service. When someone is physically or emotionally exhausted, a practical task such as making a meal, cleaning, or running errands shows your awareness of the immediate needs and doing it with being asked communicates that it is not a burden but something you want to do. Make sure it is something that will be perceived as helpful by asking specific questions. “Is there anything you need?” could make it feel like they are adding to your to-do list. Instead frame it as something you’re already planning such as, “I’m going grocery shopping and would love to pick something up for you. What can I get?” or “I’d love to bring you a meal. Is there anything you can’t eat or something that you would enjoy?”
Other ways to show love include encouraging words, not based on downplaying the pain (e.g. “Time heals all things”), but on the focusing on the value of the individual. (e.g. “Know that I care about you and really appreciate you sharing this part of your life with me.”). Just asking the question, “What would be help you feel loved and supported?” lets someone know that you love them, and can give you insight into how to help. It might be something simple, like giving a hug, but it communicates your care.
4. Ask the best way to pray… and do it!
While prayer is a powerful way to share love, it is sometimes misused as a way to express opinions. When praying for what YOU would like to see happen (e.g. “I pray that Suzy would be able to go out and make more friends to help heal from the grief.”), you are essentially communicating what you think she should do or how she should show progress. You might have some valid ideas, but what is first priority is looking at the immediate needs, not our own assumptions. So ask! For one person, the immediate concern could be an area of stress you were unaware of (e.g. an upcoming decision or financial need), while another is struggling most with feelings of fear, depression, or loneliness.
It’s wonderful to pray both with that person, and then on a regular basis, rather than just following the Christian protocol of saying you’ll be praying. The next time you see your friend, you can specifically ask about the prayer request, showing that you care about that need.
When someone shares a prayer request with you, don’t forget the importance of respecting their privacy. While corporate prayer is valuable, don’t pass on someone else’s prayer request without first receiving his permission. What he told you may be more personal than he wants everyone to know; respecting that shows that he can trust you and may help him feel more comfortable talking to you in the future.
I would challenge you to make an effort to identify those who might benefit from knowing there are others around them who care. Use genuine empathy to make a difference!