By Danielle Hance
Whether we’re battling chronic illness, mourning a loved one, going through separation, or any number of other painful periods, we all need support.
Not sure how to support a friend in distress? Here are some bad and better approaches.
BAD: “Are you feeling better?”
This question practically demands an affirmative response. People expect those who are sick to get well, not worse. This may lead sufferers to feel they are failing if they are not “better” yet. Also, beware that giving books about “dealing” with grief, pain, and loss may send the same message.
BETTER: “You don’t have to answer, but how are you really feeling today?”
Sometimes your friend may want to talk about his feelings. Sometimes he might be sick of giving the answer he’s given the other 100 caring people. By showing your earnestness, you give room for a genuine response.
BAD: “God will never give you more than you can handle.”
Not only is this not scriptural, it’s just not true. While God won’t give us anything he’s not capable of bringing us through, it doesn’t give comfort to the crushed. And all the spiritual platitudes about Heaven needing another angel don’t take away the agony of physical and emotional separation from a lost loved one.
BETTER: “Would it be OK if I prayed with you now? It’s OK to say no.”
Our spiritual state is often shaken by loss, and feelings and questions toward God can run in many different directions. One day, we may feel close to God. Another day, we might not want to have anything to do with him. Prayer is always a good idea. However, let the sufferer decide how.
BAD: “I know exactly how you feel. You must be feeling (insert emotion). I felt the same way when (insert personal tragedy).”
Unless you can walk in someone else’s shoes, you will never know exactly how your friend is feeling.
And just because you reacted to loss with a certain emotion doesn’t mean that everyone reacts that way.
BETTER: “Thank you for trusting me with your pain. I just wanted to let you know I’m here for you.”
Even if you have been through a similar experience, what sufferers need more is someone to acknowledge their pain and story. It’s OK if you don’t understand or know how to relate. Sometimes a hug or a hand around a shoulder is the best way to empathize.
BAD: “At least, (insert something more catastrophic) didn’t happen. You should be thankful you still have (insert a family member/good circumstance).”
There is value in seeing the silver lining. However, comments like these tend to invalidate how distressed individuals are feeling and can actually lead to guilt for not being more thankful. They might also feel they need to “toughen up” since they don’t have it “that bad.”
BETTER: “What you are going through is difficult. Is there anything I can do to come alongside you? Here’s my number. Don’t hesitate to call.”
Validating your friend’s feelings is one of the best gifts you can give. By allowing them to be free to mourn, suffer, and feel pain, you give them the freedom to process and heal. By posing an open-ended question, you don’t impose what you think they need, and you let them express their own needs, whenever that might be convenient. Beware that sometimes there is not a way for you to help, and that’s OK.
One other tip: The road to healing can be long and unpredictable. The outpouring of support that occurs at the start of a painful period often drops off pretty sharply when people turn their attention to the next tragedy. However, the height of pain for the sufferer often comes long after the cards stop coming.
A friend who follows up is gold. Mark important dates like anniversaries of loss, birthdays, or dates of diagnoses on your calendar and send flowers, a gift card for a favorite restaurant, or just a simple “thinking of you.”
Unpressured invitations to normal celebrations like birthdays and dinner parties can also offer a way to “take a break” and not feel singled out.
Have you made some of the mistakes on this list? Don’t despair.
Just as Job forgave the hurtful responses of his friends, it is likely your friend has forgiven you. If in doubt, ask for forgiveness. It is another opportunity to show just how much you support your friend.
Danielle Hance is a communications professional, writer, and editor living in Germany. Read her ministry blog at http://dmarieingermany.weebly.com.