The 5 Best Ways to Help Hurting People
After my last blog, The Ten Worst Things to say to Hurting People, I received several emails asking for a follow up blog. Many asked, “OK Doug. We now know what not to say, but what can we say to people in pain?” My response to them is always the same. Your words matter much less than your presence. The following blog describes 5 ways to be present with hurting people. Follow them, and you have a great chance at connecting with others and making them feel loved and valued.
1. Say nothing at all. Sitting in silence with someone is incredibly hard. When we see others in pain, it reminds us of our own pain. And when we are reminded of our own pain, we want to get rid of that pain. At this point, we have two options. First, we can throw out a couple of one liners like “God has a plan…” or “Everything will be OK!” Saying “comforting” things like this to hurting people kills two birds with one stone. Not only does it shut your loved ones down and stops them from sharing, but it also stops you from having to face your own brokenness. These prescriptive comments scream, “Hey! You shouldn’t be feeling the way you do right now…or at least not for very long, because everything will be all right eventually and God is doing something you don’t know about!” Both might be true, but not necessarily helpful in the moment.
Another option is to remain silent. By doing so you send the message, “I am here with you and love you enough to absorb your pain and mine at the same time…” And make no mistake…as you silently sit across from someone who is weeping out every last tear in their body in agony, you are absorbing an excruciatingly large amount of pain. You may feel an intense desire to encourage, protect, rescue or to pull them out of the pit they are in. But do something different this time. Climb down into that pit with them and lay down for a while. Get your clothes dirty. Be present. Be silent.
2. Use physical touch. Making physical contact can be extremely powerful, especially with our hurting children. Many times our children experience horrific ridicule and pressure at school. They may act like they don’t want to be loved on and hugged, but deep down…they really do. Hugging, patting, or rubbing an arm sends the message that your child is lovable, acceptable and worthy.
Attention dads with daughters: please know that your little girls desperately want to feel beautiful. They are bombarded by magazines, TV shows and movies that create an illusion of beauty that they will never be able to live up to. If you don’t make them feel beautiful, they will eventually find someone who does.
They will long for male attention and acquire it in any way they can-through seductive dressing, inappropriate pictures on Facebook, or flirtatious behavior at school. And that kind of attention is never good attention. Communicate verbally and through appropriate physical touch that your daughter is a princess and deserves to be treated that way…
3. Get curious. After being present with someone, ask what they might uniquely need from you. Ask for input on how you can help. Often, hurting people won’t know in the moment what they need from you or perhaps won’t want to burden you. Be persistent and keep asking. Be ready to help in any way you can.
4. Be confused. My patients have repeatedly told me that what has been most helpful in our therapy has not been some amazing bit of wisdom or advice that I have shared, but rather the comfort that comes from knowing that I am confused, alone and broken with them. I have cried with some and I have expressed frustration at our confusion with others. When you are confused with someone, they can actually feel less alone. It can be maddening to feel like you are the only one who doesn’t have things figured out. Sometimes it may seem like everyone around you has life figured out except you. Love your hurting friends by being confused with your hurting friends.
5. Random acts of compassion. The movie “50/50” chronicles the journey of a young man named Adam who suddenly discovers he has terminal cancer and will die soon. His goofy and sometimes clueless best friend attempts to walk through the painful treatment process with him. Sadly, just about everyone near Adam leaves him. Near the end, as the cancer begins to take over his body, he becomes painfully convinced his best friend has been using him and cares nothing for him. He makes a surprise visit to his best friend’s apartment to cut ties. Before doing so, he visits his friend’s bathroom and makes a surprising discovery. Adam notices a book that has been read through multiple times, highlighted and worn out. With tears welling in his eyes, Adam notices that the book was about how to care for and love your friends who have been diagnosed with cancer. Adam had been unaware that his best friend had been spending countless hours thinking about Adam and diligently studying how to care for him in the only way he knew how. As the two embraced, it meant the world to Adam to know that his friend had silently suffered with him and invested large amounts of time and care in him.
It’s easy to send a text or an email. It is much more meaningful to put time and effort into a heartfelt gesture. Get creative. Write a poem or a letter. Make a homemade gift or do something that actually takes time to do. Plan a day for you and your loved one. And sometimes…the best gift you can give is the one they never see…
There are no magical phrases that we can say to alleviate others’ pain. But we can be present with them and be broken with them. And being broken with loved ones in pain is the most important part of the healing process.