by Wendy Keller
When someone we care about is hurting, compassionate people like you want to do or say something to help ease their pain. But sometimes, the most loving thing we can say is nothing at all. Here are some ways you can offer real comfort – and prevent yourself from making the situation any worse.
1. Let it be all about them.
Say simply “I am so sad that you’re hurting.” Or “I can’t imagine what you’re going through.” People often foolishly say, “I understand because I had…” and go on to describe their own painful experience. But it is NOT the same to lose a parent as it is to lose a child; it is NOT the same to lose a pet as to lose a spouse; it is NOT the same even if you also lost the same relation to say, “…because my husband died, too.” Every relationship is different, and every person responds to it differently, and every person’s way of measuring their loss is different. When my children died, a surprisingly large number of people said, “I understand because my pet died, and it was like a child to me.” I wanted to shriek at them! I never left my son home with a bowl of water on the floor! I never went to bed and left my daughter roaming in the yard! Your loss is not the same as anyone else’s. Similarly, when my house burned down, a few well-meaning but incredibly ignorant people said,”Well, at least you survived.” I can’t even verbalize how insensitive that comment is! Just use one of the two suggested phrases and you’ll be safe – and compassionate – and appropriate.
2. Listen. The kindest thing you can do is to not talk.
After you make one of the compassionate statements above, either offer a hug or just sit silently with the person. If they want to talk, they will. If they don’t, let them be. If you feel tears, let them fall. Sit quietly. Don’t ply them with questions or drown them in platitudes, especially not those reflective of your faith. For instance, saying, “It’s OK, he’s with Jesus now” is an incredibly hurtful statement to the other person, who doesn’t WANT him to “be with Jesus”. If the person believes he’s with Jesus, they will feel guilty for feeling grief; if the person used to believe people went to Jesus when they died, and they are now questioning their own faith, it’s possible you will drive them further away by being so insensitive. If you say, “Well, at least she’s out of pain” you are creating guilt again. Just be quiet. Just be present. If the relationship you have with the suffering person includes touching – then hold their hand, hug them while they cry, just be there. You cannot DO anything to make it better! I’ve heard people trying to comfort someone who is dying by saying, “You don’t get more than you can bear.” Shut up already! You have no real idea what that person is going through! Don’t make it worse by imposing your story, your beliefs or your platitudes on anyone else. Listening is the greatest gift you can give.
If it’s a person whose life is now heavily burdened because of a loss, illness, disaster or tragedy, and if it is in your power to help, do it. If there are small kids, offer to take them to the park tomorrow afternoon. It will give your friend some time to grieve or catch up with their life. If you can bring over food, if you can sweep the kitchen floor, or get their car serviced, or help them deal with the insurance adjuster, do it. Walk their dog. Write them a check. Lots of people say, “If there’s anything I can do, call me” and then wait for the suffering person to make the call. They never will! It’s not part of our culture to ask for help. You have to look around, see what needs to be done, and offer to do specifically that. If the person says No, respect their wishes. Maybe a day or two later, offer to do something different. But by offering specific things, you are pointing out that specific things still need to be done – and that’s often more than someone in grief, trauma or pain can do for themselves.
Your desire to be compassionate is a wonderful thing! If you’ve done or said something “wrong” in the past, don’t beat yourself up. You didn’t know. But now that you do, these are a few lessons that will help you be an effective comforter in the future.
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“The Top Ten Tips to Coping with Crisis”?