Seeing a friend or loved one in pain is never easy. While we want to be helpful, the truth is that sometimes the experience can make us uneasy. We wonder what to say or what not to say. We worry about having nothing to say. We might even prefer not to think about their difficult situation because it reminds us of some troubling experience of our own. It’s not that we don’t care. It’s that deep down we would rather their suffering not sully whatever peace or happiness we have found. Few of us would like to admit it, but here’s the thing: feeling this way doesn’t make us bad, it makes us human.
If you want to be helpful to someone in pain, consider these suggestions:
- “Don’t worry. It will all work out.” Sorry, but while you may hope this is the case, you don’t actually know it will be. People in pain don’t need wishful thinking, they need support. What’s more, they cling to reliable information. If you can offer this, great. If you can’t, find another way to be helpful. For instance encourage rather than guarantee. Try saying, “You can get through this. I’m here for you whatever you need.” Or, “I’ll do whatever I can to help you find your way.” And do it. Remember, words and deeds go hand in hand. Also, be a resource. Help the person to put together a plan of action. Your affection and availability is so much more helpful than any false promise of certainty.
- “Everything happens for a reason.” Or “We’re only given what we can handle.” While you may believe this, others may not. And even if they did previously, pain and suffering have a way of shaking such principles. Best not to project your own beliefs onto others. This is especially true for people facing betrayal or loss or injustice. Be present. Be a steward by helping the person to find something meaningful about the situation. Don’t try to play God.
- “Someone always has it worse. Just think about…(name your person or cause).” Maintaining one’s perspective is an essential part of overcoming adversity, but it doesn’t always come easy. People in the midst of pain, especially in the immediate aftermath, typically don’t want hear about another person’s pain—at least just now. And reminding them that there are others who are suffering, especially more than they are, often succeeds only in trying their patience and causing frustration. What is helpful is allowing those who are in pain to be sad or mad or outraged or cry—in other words, to express their emotions freely. In fact, a huge part of getting through adversity and building resilience is learning to ride the waves of emotions, allowing them to come and go as they will. Having said this, if, at some point, you see that a loved one is staying in the trough—remaining down more than they are up—then you might suggest that it’s time for them to talk to their general physician or a professional mental health counselor.
- “I know exactly what you’re going through.” Do you really? Have you actually been through the same set of circumstances, with all the same nuances that this person has? Or are you unwittingly projecting your own experiences onto theirs? Situations are rarely exactly the same; however, emotions are similar. We all feel fear, anger, sadness, guilt, joy, relief, satisfaction, and so on. It’s important when interacting with someone in pain to first be present to their story, their experience, and their emotional challenges. Allowing a person to be heard is one of the best healers we can offer. Then, and only then, is it helpful to share snippets of your own experience—as a way to say, “You’re not alone,” rather than seeming to trump or minimize theirs.
- “Don’t be negative. Just think happy thoughts.” While wallowing isn’t the most effective path for healing, let’s not forget that pain isn’t a positive experience. Trying to shield a person’s suffering behind forced feelings of happiness isn’t going to make the pain go away. “Just be positive,” and other platitudes like it, are often nothing more than a way to fill an awkward silence when we simply don’t know what to say. Instead of espousing the “just be happy” line, how about trying to just be honest. It really is okay—and often actually more helpful—to say to someone, “I wish I knew what to say to you. I can’t imagine what you’re going through. Let me know what I can do to help.” And if you do want to focus on something positive, focus on reminding the person of their strengths and gifts, and encourage them to leverage those strengths when the pain becomes too heavy. Likewise, remind the person of what they’ve done in the past when challenge or heartache has arisen, and inspire them to do it again.
- “If I were you I’d…” Or “What you should do is…” It’s natural to want to help a person who is suffering, but adversity is no time for a know-it-all. Change, challenge, and crisis are highly individualized experiences, and as such they affect each of us differently. How we deal with them depends on many factors, including our personality and coping style, our biological makeup, our life experience, our faith or belief system, and the nature of the situation. Just because you might deal with a situation one way, does not mean that it is necessarily right for someone else. Be empathetic—put yourself in your loved one or friend’s shoes—but don’t let your shoes walk all over (or overshadow) theirs. Let them ask you for your opinion before you impose it. And if at some point you feel strongly that you have some wise words of wisdom to impart, say, “Can I make a suggestion?” Or “Maybe you would find this helpful…” It’s often all in the presentation.
- “I told you so.” Sometimes life throws us challenging situations that we didn’t ask for. Other times we contribute, even if it is in small ways, to our own suffering. Occasionally, we’ll stand on the sidelines, watching others do things that we conclude would be harmful. Even still, saying—or insinuating—“I told you so” to a person who is down and out is really unhelpful; more to the point, it’s actually condescending. You gain no points for being right, only for being present. Rather than reminding the person of your good judgment, try helping them to avoid making more decisions that might cause them grief. Likewise, help them to brainstorm positive actions that could move them forward.
- Be patient. And take your cue from them. The healing process takes time. It can’t be forced, hurried, or demanded as much as you might like it to be. If your friend or loved one feels like talking, let them. If they need quiet time, give them this too, whether it’s letting them be for a while or else just sitting in silence when you’re together. If they are up for laugh, great. If they need a cry, that’s also okay. What’s important to remember is that there is no “normal” timetable for healing in wake of adversity. What’s more, that both positive and negative emotions are part of the mix, sometimes they even come at the same time. There are, however, guidelines to ensure that things don’t get worse. Likewise, there are great strategies, tools, and practices that can make the healing process easier and more beneficial for a person’s life going forward.
- Give a person leeway. Try not to take things personally. Hardship and grief push us to the limits of “us.” Accordingly, people on the emotional edge will often say things or do things that they might not otherwise. While it may pain you, consider whether such a comment or an action is coming from them at their core or just because they’re upset. Remind yourself that even if the person did mean it, all relationships have dynamics, and this issue can certainly be addressed at an appropriate time in the future—after things have calmed down. Having said this, setting and respecting boundaries are both important parts of the healing process. So if your friend or loved one says something hurtful to you, gently let them know how this made you feel. Ask them if they really meant what they said. Also, remind them that you are not the enemy—that you are on their side.
- Check in regularly, even if you don’t hear back from your friend or loved one right away. Most people who are in pain have limited bandwidth. This is because adversity takes a toll on us—all aspects of us—physically, mentally, spiritually, and emotionally. If you reach out and a person doesn’t respond, it doesn’t mean they’re angry with you. More likely it is that they haven’t had the energy to reply. Don’t give up though. People facing adversity still like to know there are those out there who care and are there if they need it. Note: you don’t have to be pest and reach out daily. Check in with them every few days or once a week, depending on how close to the person you are. Call, email, text, private message them in Facebook, but by all means do not post publically on their page. Also, don’t demand that they call you back. Just let them know you’re thinking of them, that you’re there for them, and that you’ll be checking in on them from time to time.
Whether it’s a health concern, a death, a financial problem, an existential crisis, or any other of life’s myriad challenges, engaging with someone who is in pain can be challenging. But knowing how to do this will make the process easier. What’s more, it will ensure that your relationship with the person not only stays intact, but also strengthens and sustains.
*This article was written by Michele DeMarco and has be reproduced here with permission.