Caring for Someone who is Suffering

When was the last time you found yourself in a difficult situation and were at a loss for words? Was it when a friend shared that they and their spouse were getting a divorce? Or when you learned your sister’s cancer had returned? Or while sitting next to the bedside of your dying loved one? When the moment arrives, whatever its cause, we can freeze, not knowing what to say.

All of us will find ourselves in this situation. And all of us will want to respond thoughtfully and purposefully. In the moment we can often resort to a response that addresses our anxiety rather than the other person’s need. Phrases like, “Well, at least you have a good doctor,” or “I have a friend who just went through a divorce” can shift the conversation to less anxious terrain, but often leave the other person’s pain unaddressed. I believe that every single Christian is called to offer God’s love and care in this world. To do so, each of us needs to be equipped to know what to say and do (and what not to say and do) in moments of particular pain and vulnerability.

This fall our Deacons are reading What to Say To People Who Are Hurting by Laurie Lewis. This book provides extensive practical advice and direction for how to support people who are suffering. Lewis addresses some of the situations listed above and offers several role-playing examples to help cement effective techniques and phrases. Here are a few key pieces from Lewis’ book that may help you as you show God’s love to those in your life:

Active listening – This form of listening involves our entire self. We attune our mind and heart to hear not only what is being said verbally, but also what is being presented nonverbally through body language. In active listening our first priority is not to develop a response but to notice what the person is truly communicating. If someone says they are “doing great” while looking down at their feet, we can ascertain that might not be how they are actually feeling.

Clear communication – Sometimes when we do not know what to say we end up saying too many words with little actual content. To continue using the example above, if someone says they are “doing great” while looking down at their feet, a clear response could be, “You seem to be sad/angry/scared, is that true?” If the person responds to your question, then you can continue to actively listen to their response. Additionally, sometimes silence is the clearest communication. Holding the silence with someone can help them focus on what is happening in their heart and mind. In those moments you can communicate through holding their hand, touching their arm, or simply sitting nearby.

Be authentic – Sometimes you will not know what to say or do. In those moments you can simply say, “I don’t understand why this is happening to you, but I’m here for you. I care about you.” And then you can follow those statements by showing up, following up with the person at a later date, and being supportive. Do not try to fulfill a role that you cannot satisfy. You do not need to make promises or imagine the future. You can simply be with the person in the present moment, supporting them as best as you can at the time.

These are only three of the many pieces of wisdom that Laurie Lewis offers in her book. I encourage you to remember these responses the next time you are in a difficult situation, attempting to best support someone you love. Through engaging in active listening, clear communication, and being authentic you can demonstrate God’s love to a person in need.