How To Talk to People Who Are Suffering

by Andrew Forrest
Police join hands during the singing of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" during an interfaith memorial service for the victims of the Dallas police shooting at the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center on July 12, 2016 in Dallas, Texas. (Credit: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

“I don’t know what to say.”  When we’re confronted with someone who is grieving or in pain, most of us feel inadequate and intimidated.  But, grieving, suffering people are all around us, and we need to learn how to appropriately engage with them: ignoring them is not an option.  On the first anniversary of the murder of the five Dallas police officers, I thought it would be helpful to briefly offer what I’ve learned about speaking to people in pain.

It’s Not About You

Over a decade ago ago, I was working in youth ministry at a church.  One afternoon, the pastor of our church came rushing into my office: “Just got a phone call: so-and-so has killed himself.”  A high school boy from our church shot himself at home, and his parents had found him.  The pastor drove the two of us to to meet the boy’s family.  I’ve rarely been so sick with nerves.  I was worried that I would say the wrong thing or somehow make the situation worse.  In other words, I was only thinking about myself.  What I realized after visiting with the bereaved father was that it wasn’t about me at all, and to worry about saying the wrong thing or otherwise making the situation worse was selfish and foolish.

In this particular example, literally the worst thing that this father could possibly have imagined had just happened; there was nothing I could do that could make the situation worse.  But, in any interaction with a grieving or suffering person, your words are not going to fix the situation no matter what you say, and if you worry about what you say or how you’ll be perceived, you’ll be making it about you, when it’s really about the other person anyway.  So, remember: it’s not about you.

Which is not to imply that in those situations you should say whatever crosses your mind.

Resist the Urge to Explain

It’s one of those phrases my dad always says that has stuck with me: “Resist the urge to explain.”  We humans like neat explanations, but one of the problems with pain and suffering is that they are ultimately inexplicable.  You and I do not know why that child has cancer or why that couple can’t conceive or why those cops were killed.  Do not speak about that which you do not know.  What I mean is that we should not resort to greeting card pablum along the lines of:

“Everything happens for a reason;”

or

“I guess God just wanted another angel;”

or

“God knew you could handle it.”

Those sorts of statements are not helpful to people who are grieving or suffering.  Resist the urge to explain that person’s suffering to him or her.  When you do that what you are really doing is making the interaction about you, exactly what I warned against above.  There isn’t a neat, clean explanation for suffering, and since there isn’t, resist the urge to explain.

Don’t Compare Sufferings

In the same way that you should resist the urge to explain, you should also resist the urge to compare sufferings with the other person.  You don’t know exactly what the person is going through, and it’s unhelpfully self-centered to think that you do.  It’s okay to reference your own experience with suffering, but be sure to refrain from assuming that your situation is comparable to the other person’s (even if it seems to be, from your point of view).

Say “I’m So Sorry”

Rather than trying to compare sufferings, I’ve learned that it’s better to instead share 3 simple words with people who are grieving: “I’m so sorry.”  That sentiment is always appropriate and has the virtue of being true and normal.

Be Normal

Normal people smile when they greet each other and when they say goodbye.  Normal people talk about things in specifics.  I’ve found that many people are worried if they should smile or mention the source of the pain when they interact with someone who is suffering, but remember: it’s not about you, and you’re not going to make it worse.  (It’s already terrible.)  Treat the grieving person as you would any other normal person.  This means it’s important to give the other person the courtesy of a smile (even if it’s a sad smile) and a courteous, friendly look when you greet him or her, and I think it’s important to specifically mention the source of the pain.  When parents have just lost a child, it’s okay to say, “I’m so sorry for your loss.”  It’s okay to say to your co-worker, “I heard about the death of your mother and I wanted you to know I’m really sorry to hear that.”  I’ve heard people say that one of the ugly parts of grief is that you feel like such a leper–everyone avoids talking to you about your loss or tries to change the subject.  When talking to someone who is grieving, therefore, just be normal.

Pray

It’s normal to want to remove someone’s pain and it’s normal to want to pray.  However, when someone is hurting, prayer isn’t going to change the source of that person’s pain–what’s happened has already happened.  What prayer can do is change that person’s future.  When someone loses a loved one, for example, you can’t pray that the loss goes away–it’s a real, permanent loss.  Rather, what you can pray is for God is be with that person in the midst of his or her pain.  I’ve found that it’s helpful to pray a version of 2 Corinthians 4:8-9:

 We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair;  persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.

When I pray for someone who has lost a loved one, for example, I’ll say:

Lord, this person is hard pressed on every side; let her not be crushed;

This person is perplexed at this inexplicable event; let her not be driven to despair;

This person is feeling persecuted; let her know that she’s not abandoned;

This person is feeling struck down; let this grief not destroy her.

Suffering is All Around Us

Suffering is a part of life and no one is exempt.  One of the ugly parts of pain is that it makes you feel alone.  But, there can be a solidarity in suffering, as we reach out with kindness and courtesy to others as they suffer, and when they in turn do the same to us.  I hope the thoughts above are helpful to you the next time you find yourself confronted with a person in pain.

 

 

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9 comments

Christina July 6, 2017 - 5:16 pm

There are two simple words that hold a lot of meaning as well. And I will say those to you today – thank you!

Reply
Deborah Bozarth July 6, 2017 - 9:09 pm

Andrew, This is excellent and I needed these words. This certainly puts things in perspective. Can I share this on my Facebook page? Thanks so much.

Reply
Andrew Forrest July 6, 2017 - 9:56 pm

Certainly. Share away.

Reply
Bob Middleton July 7, 2017 - 3:46 pm

Andrew, this is great. Very helpful. I am taking the course from Forrest and looking forward to continuing to try to be of service in hospital visitation.

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Bob Middleton July 7, 2017 - 3:48 pm

Andrew, this is great. Very Helpful. I am taking the course from Forrest and looking forward to continuing to try ‘
be of service in hospital visitation.

Reply
Andrew Forrest July 7, 2017 - 3:56 pm

God bless you, Bob!

Reply
Douglas Ralls July 10, 2017 - 10:28 am

As one who lost a son in tragic circumstances, I agree with your helpful suggestions to folks. Completely on point. and thank you!

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Brian Davis July 14, 2017 - 12:47 am

Andrew, thanks for these words. A sincere “I am sorry for your loss” is so appropriate.

I am reminded of your earlier post:
http://andrewforrest.org/2014/07/30/in-which-i-compare-myself-to-barack-obama/

Thanks for the reminder that there are people in pain all around us. Our genuine acts of kindness, which cost us nothing, can have healing effects on others.

Reply
“The Media and the Massacre” – Andrew Forrest October 2, 2017 - 10:12 am

[…] what to say about the massacre overnight in Las Vegas.  Probably the best thing is to say nothing, to resist the urge to explain, to sit in silence and actually pray, rather than just tweeting that worse-than-useless phrase […]

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