To Sit in Suffering with Others

This article was originally published on Christian Courier on May 13, 2019.

“I want to help, but I don’t have anything to offer. . .”

“I want to help, but I don’t know how. . .”

“I want to help, but I’m afraid I’ll do something wrong. . .”

“I want to help, but I’m not sure what to say. . .”

At the end of May 2014, no further evidence of disease was found after a year of grueling treatments. My battle with stage IV colon cancer had finally ended, leaving me feeling beaten down physically, emotionally and spiritually. Throughout the fight, there were numerous people wanting to offer words of blessing and encouragement. I remember well the nervous words, the downcast eyes, the awkward silences. Well-meaning, all of it, of course. But sometimes doing more harm than good. 

When helping others through personal disasters like cancer or other life-threatening illnesses, it is important to remember the power of simply being present with others amidst their suffering – which starts by listening more and talking less. Don’t get me wrong. Words can help ease distress and even spark hope in those in need. However, the truth of the matter is, there are no “golden” words or phrases we can share that will make the pain go away. There’s nothing we can say that will make everything better. That’s why we often feel helpless when trying to help family and friends who may be hurting. Because our words can’t solve the problem, we are prone to freeze up, say things we normally wouldn’t and sidestep difficult conversations. 

As a result, we often fall into the trap of relying on platitudes that aren’t helpful and can even be harmful to someone going through a crisis. Sometimes, we rely on empty, familiar phrases because it helps us, the helper, feel less anxious. We toss out a cliché to break the unbearable weight of silence. At other times, we share familiar statements that lack substance as a way to stop the outpouring of emotion that makes us uncomfortable. This is why we need to focus less on speaking, and instead listen more.

Although listening may sound easy, I can tell you it is not. It can be particularly challenging when we open ourselves up to entering into the suffering of others. Here are a few tips that can help make you a better listener:

• Focus on being in the here and now. “Do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others” (Phil. 2:4).

• Acknowledge the difficulty of the situation. Survivors (and those still battling a serious illness or dealing with grief) need to be reminded that their pain and struggle are legitimate. This will let the person you are helping know that you hear and grasp the gravity of what they’ve been through. 

• Be authentic and genuine. Show warmth and concern. Know it’s okay if you cry with the other person. Allow yourself to express your emotions. Just be cautious to not make it all about you. 

• Be there through the difficulties. People walking through difficult times need to know that you will be there with them not just today, but in the future; that they will not have to walk this road alone. “Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing” (1 Thess. 5:11). 

• Be willing to listen to the hard stuff. Sometimes it may get uncomfortable but survivors need to be able to process what they have seen and experienced. 

• Talk about how they are trying to make meaning of what they are going through. If he or she has a way of looking at things that is different from your observation, try to understand where they are coming from. 

• Listen without judging what the other person may be feeling or thinking. Don’t try arguing or debating the person’s experience. 

• Show patience and let the person share their story in their own time. Forcing people to share before they are ready can actually cause more harm than help.  

• Be humble and set your opinions on the shelf. Often times people think they know the “best” way to help and may cause harm if they don’t truly recognize the needs being expressed by the survivor. 

• Help the person manage anxiety and other emotions. Listening helps remind survivors that they are not alone in the recovery process.

• Notice and point out the strengths and changes you see in them. Survivors may not be able to see the real progress they are making when they are focused on how far they have to go. 

• “Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray…”(James 5:13). Don’t force prayer on the person you are helping. Rather, start by praying silently. Pray silently for God’s guidance over the situation, that you’d be guided in your thoughts and actions. You can also pray that God would bring relief, hope and healing for the other person and for all affected by the tragic event. Without pressuring the other person, you might also ask them if they would like you to pray for them. If they say yes, pray what comes naturally and from your heart. It’s okay if you muddle your way through your prayer. God will still listen. If the person declines, don’t force or push it; respect their wishes.

• Consider lovingly referring the person you are supporting for additional support if warranted (e.g., are struggling with a mental health issue) to a trusted pastor, mental health professional, or healthcare provider for professional services.  

To truly listen to someone else’s story is a lot harder than it sounds. Being open and receiving another person’s story can be challenging, especially when they’re describing a tragedy. Thankfully, supporting a loved one as a friend amidst adversity doesn’t require perfection. All that it required of you is you. Instead of racking your brain for the perfect thing to say, focus instead on listening well. This is one of the best ways you can provide emotional and spiritual support to those who are hurting. Helping them feel heard and understood will speak more deeply to survivors than any words you might say.