When someone is hurting, it can be challenging to know what to do. Hearing their hard story may cause our faces to reveal conflicted hearts. Eyes shift towards the floor and our body language shows defeat. Or, the opposite occurs. We jump into assumptions and resolutions.
Though we mean well, our efforts or lack thereof can sometimes make hurting loved ones feel worse.
In the face of tragedy or trials, it’s easy to feel impotent. The inability to take pain away or immediately make things better causes an uncomfortable tension we feel desperate to resolve. Our natural tendency is to fix things that can’t be fixed, at least not in that moment and often not by us.
So, what do we do? How can we be helpful to those who are hurting?
1. Be Gently Present
Of all the ways we can help, what tends to be the most valuable is the ministry of presence. At times, a phone call or text will suffice. At other times, physical presence is far more treasured.
God calls us to love one another through community and fellowship, and to share our burdens. This kind of burden sharing doesn’t equal fixing others or taking on responsibility which isn’t ours. However, it might look like the relief of loneliness or a shoulder to cry on. Literally.
Our presence in some form is important in the immediate as well as the long term. Their pain can surface for weeks and months later.
2. Practice Silence Over Solutions
Perhaps the hardest, yet maybe the best, thing we can do for others is to allow room for the tension of emotion and absence of resolution.
When we rush into solutions we spout off bits of advice and snippets of scripture which may be out of context and at the wrong time. We may play Savior when that role isn’t ours. If you’ve ever had this happen, you know how the powerful truths of God can be used in ways which are not powerfully helpful.
May we remember to practice silence first. It’s OK to not have the answers. Silence over solutions offers awareness of God's presence and the work of the Holy Spirit.
3. Allow Room for the Expression of Emotions
Someone in pain may have a hard time regulating their emotions. Anger may spew forth, tears may gush uncontrollably, and they may end up in a state of fight, flight, or freeze. If we quickly tell someone to hush or quit, we short change the work of emotional honesty.
We don’t need to permit behavior which becomes harmful or destructive to others who are present. However, by giving them room to feel pain we allow the person to process grief and hurt so they can heal.
4. Empathize with their Experience
Empathy means to share and understand the feelings of another. While processing hurt, one may share details or thoughts we don’t understand or agree with. One’s understanding of reality is a real perception. Our role is to empathize with what they are experiencing.
We tend to jump into telling them what we think really happened, what they should believe, or how they should feel. While there are times when truth can and must be addressed, our loved ones who are hurting will benefit first from knowing there is care for what they’ve experienced. We can validate what others feel and why they feel it without agreeing to destructive beliefs or accusations.
If we invalidate another person's experience they are more likely to go into a state of defense and revolt. They will be less receptive to care and correction, if needed.
5. See, Hear, Love
Three powerful phrases help us feel seen, heard, and loved. “I see (the pain/challenge).” “I hear you.” “I don’t know what to say, but I’m here for you.”
Mankind’s deepest longings are found in being seen, known, and loved. When injustice, loss, or challenging circumstances come to call in our lives the enemy will hit us in our weakest points whispering lies. He does not want us to believe confidently that God sees and hears us.
By choosing to see the other person for what they are going through, listening to them as they work through hard emotions, and choosing to love them in the midst of it all, we offer an extension of God’s kingdom work through us.
6. Offer Specific Ways of Helping
When we hear of someone’s struggle we often say, “Let me know what I can do to help.” We want to help but don’t know how. Yet, the person in pain is less likely to have the thought power needed to come up with ideas at that time. What if, instead, we shared the burden of thinking for them and gave specific offers for help.
We can choose based on what we know about the person, or we can ask someone who knows them better. We can provide specific suggestions and ask them if they would be OK with it. Depending on the relationship, we might just take care of the need.
For example, we might know our neighbor keeps a well-manicured lawn. Then, a death in the family occurs and they are busy making arrangements. We could say, “I’d like to mow your lawn for you today. I’ll be over at 10 AM if that works for you.”
In another situation, we might just buy chocolate, or provide a gift card, flowers, or other treat. We might take them out for a meal or a coffee date.
7. Pray Specifically
When someone needs prayer, and especially when they ask for prayer, consider stating a specific prayer in text, email, or on social media. Or, call or visit them in person for prayer together.
If you’re anything like me, you know how easy it is to say we’ll pray then don’t actually do it. Take the time to pray immediately so it’s not forgotten.
8. Plan to Check In
It’s easy to reach out in the moment when a crises hits. It’s not so easy to remember to check on a person days, weeks, or months later. Put reminders on your calendar to prompt a check-in at different points in the future.
9. Leave Room for the Holy Spirit
Our tension to resolve matters often gets us into playing Holy Spirit rather than leaving room for the Holy Spirit’s work of comfort. We do not have to correct or convict hearts of what we think they should know, we can simply leave room for what is best done through the work of God.
10. Remember Who This is About
Ultimately, when someone is hurting this is about them. If we want to offer help we need to remember that we are there for them, not for making ourselves feel good about doing good. This frees us from having to have answers or giving glib responses. We can rest in providing comfort and care in the best ways we know how.
We don't have to be stuck. We don't have to bring solutions either. We can be present, kind, and compassionate. These are powerful ways of helping when someone is hurting.
Jolene Underwood has experienced a number of trials in life and knows that many of her readers have too. She writes about real life in need of real faith by inspiring an authentic pursuit of hope beyond the challenges of life. She is a lifter heads and a facilitator of encouragement because she knows the need for emotional care intimately. She writes regularly at joleneunderwood.com and as a contributor for Grace Table. She also offers both spiritual and writing encouragement for writers, speakers and entrepreneurs with her Rise Up Writers community and newsletter. Join her conversations of encouragement & faith via Twitter/Instagram/Pinterest at @theJoleneU