There are moments when I take for granted my degrees and experience in social work. Some days, I forget that for the last 12 years, I have been studying and practicing the art of understanding people. I have had the opportunity to learn from wise people how to listen, how to have difficult conversations, and how to sit with someone in deep pain. I basically have a degree in how to talk about hard things.
And I often forget the gift I have in my profession, until a friend or family member says something to me like, “I don’t know if my friend is ok, but I don’t know if I should ask, because I don’t want to upset her,” or “I don’t know how to talk about ______ because I don’t know what to say to him”. And in those moments, thankfulness for my training floods over me.
Over the last 3 months, I have had the privilege of sitting with my grandmother 3-4 times a week. My grandmother lost her husband of 64 years in June. She is newly into a phase of mourning his death. She came for an unexpected 3 month visit, and it was a precious time of healing.
During our visits, we cried a lot about her husband who we both miss. We laughed at memories. We read the Bible together. We prayed together. Our visits were downright holy moments. And I think that one of the reasons that our visits were so precious was that I wasn’t afraid to enter her pain with her, and talk about her suffering.
Here’s what I’ve learned over time, and through my visits with my Nanny about how to talk with someone who’s hurting:
1. Ask the person who’s hurting how they are doing. The truth is, someone who is experiencing pain, whether physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual, is constantly aware of the pain. There are moments when pain ebbs and flows, and there are moments of relief, but asking about the pain doesn’t intensify the pain or bring it to memory. The pain is there. Asking about pain, let’s the one suffering know that they are cared for. Pain plays dirty mind tricks on the one suffering. It whispers lies like “No one cares for you”, “You are alone in this”, and “You will not get better”. When someone reaches into that pain, and asks about the suffering, the suffering is slightly alleviated.
2. Ask the person who’s hurting how they are doing regularly and often. Often right after a diagnosis, loss, or tragedy, compassionate bystanders are dialed into the sufferer’s pain. After time, though, the initial emotion of the compassionate friend subsides, and life is busy, and the compassionate friend forgets to be compassionate. Pain often heals slowly, if it heals at all, and the person in pain needs long-term friends, who are willing to walk with them though their journey of healing, even if that takes weeks, months, or decades.
3. When you ask the person who’s hurting how they are doing, accept their response. Sometimes when you ask, the sufferer will open up and share what he/she is feeling. She will need you to listen well, respond with non-verbals, and validate her feelings. Sometimes when you ask, the sufferer will tell you that he doesn’t want to talk about it. That’s ok, too. He appreciates that you asked, I promise. Those suffering still want you to ask how they are doing another day – They just don’t want to go there today, and that’s ok.
4. When you ask the person who’s hurting how they are doing, be prepared for silence. As a general rule, our American culture is not very comfortable with silence. We like to fill our spaces with chatter and busyness. When someone is in pain, they often become quieter, withdrawn, and more thoughtful. They may need time to craft responses to questions. They may need some time to think and reflect before they respond. Take your time and be patient with someone who is hurting. Let them think and answer your questions at their own pace.
5. When you spend time with a person who’s hurting, be prepared to grapple with your own pain. There’s a phenomenon that happens when a student takes an Abnormal Psychology class – the student begins to think that he or she has every disorder/illness in the book. Listening to symptoms of pain, reminds us of our own pain. It is likely that a friend to someone who’s hurting will begin to reflect on her own pain. Sharing pain is part of community and part of humanity. If recognizing your own pain begins to happen, don’t disengage, but rather, be mindful, and find ways to search for your own healing.
Additionally, sitting with someone whose in pain, will, undoubtedly spark some hard questions about “Why God allows suffering” and ”Why there is so much pain in the world.” It’s normal, it’s hard, but don’t bow out on a hurting friend when those hard questions surface.
It’s not easy to really enter into pain with someone who’s hurting. It takes emotional energy, it takes time, and it takes stamina. But it’s also beautiful. Spending time with someone whose in pain makes us grateful, it makes us more sensitive, and it teaches us great things.
Whether through your own pain or the pain of another, what have you learned about how to be a friend to someone who’s hurting?