My dad, who was a pastor, told me a story one time when I was fresh out of Bible college. I was maybe 23 or 24 at the time. He was in his sixties. He shared with me how a man in his church, during his first few years in ministry, lost his wife of nearly forty years.
When my dad went to the house to see him, he got out of his car, and was immediately confronted with the sound of this grieving husband. From his driveway, my dad explained how he could hear the man’s deep sorrow, echoing from within the garage.
In that moment, my dad, as a pastor, was tempted to walk away. It felt too painful. Overwhelming. Raw. Too costly. And intimidating.
I’ve never forgotten that story. It is a reminder of how deep and hurtful suffering can be. And also, how costly it can be to enter into someone else’s sorrow.
Having been a pastor now for nearly twenty years, there have been so many similar circumstances, I have found myself in. And even as a pastor, I too can feel scared and inadequate to enter into someone else’s suffering at times. I have not always done it perfectly or wisely. There are plenty of situations I’d love to do over again.
We are currently two years into my battle with a type of incurable, but treatable, blood cancer. We’ve experienced both – those who have entered into our suffering with us, and those who have walked away.
For a long time, it was hurtful for me to think of some of the people who never texted, called, or came to visit. I found myself growing resentful. I felt hurt in my hurt. And yet I have also been reminded that for many people, it was not a lack of love or concern, they simply didn’t know what to do.
Because many people feel ill-prepared and overwhelmed with someone’s suffering, it’s helped me to be more gracious, understanding, and even forgiving. It’s also motivated me to share meaningful ways you can enter into your friend’s hurt and help them get through “this.” Maybe it’s a miscarriage, a divorce or death of a loved one. It could be the challenge of parenting a child with a disability. A job loss or difficult transition. Whatever “this” is for your friend or family member, here are three things you can help in the midst of their suffering:
Walk Toward Their Pain and Not Away From It
The first step we would encourage someone to take is toward someone’s pain and not away from it. We’ve already mentioned this above. But it’s worth restating. No matter how scared you might feel, or inadequate, it’s ok. You are likely placing a greater expectation upon yourself than your hurting friend is.
Your friend doesn’t need you to be competent; your friend needs you to care. So, don’t worry about feeling like you may not have all of the right answers. The important thing is to care and show compassion. Whatever you do, don’t move away from a hurting friend.
This might be as simple as picking up the phone and calling your friend. It could look like sending a text message. Or stopping by in person. For all of the things Job’s friends got wrong in his suffering (as recorded in the Old Testament book of Job), they did get something right. They moved in the direction of Job’s suffering! They were present with him and for him, in his pain.
11 When Job’s three friends, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite, heard about all the troubles that had come upon him, they set out from their homes and met together by agreement to go and sympathize with him and comfort him. (Job 2:11)
Pray for Your Friend, but Also Pray with Them
The second tangible thing you can do is pray for your friend and with you friend. I remember calling multiple people to tell them I had cancer. I remember stopping by several friend’s houses or apartments. And one of the things I appreciated most, was when they prayed for me AND with me.
We know not everyone may feel comfortable praying in front of people. We tend to just tell people, “We’ll be praying for you.” Which is great! But we can assure you, it was also really meaningful to have a friend say over the phone, “Hey, before I let you go, can I pray for you?’ Or for someone to come up at church and say, “Would you mind if I prayed for you right now?” We didn’t care how polished the prayer was!
That first week of diagnosis, between 15-20 of our friends from our church gathered in the home of some dear friends in our neighborhood. They took turns reading scripture to me, praying over me, and having faith for me.
Everyone is wired different. This might be too much for some people. But one thing we can all do for someone who is suffering is continue to intercede for them. There is no greater privilege than to lift them up to the throne of God’s mercy (Hebrews 4:16). What a gift to give someone on a regular basis – the gift of praying for and with them.
Don’t Feel the Pressure to Do Everything, but Do Something
One thing we learned in our battle with cancer is how eager people are to help. It takes humility and transparency to let others in. We were so grateful for the many ways people did “something.”
We were frequently asked the question, “What can we do for you?” Sometimes this came in the form of a statement: “Let us know if we can do anything for you.” What we found is that pain paralyzes you. While we appreciated the sentiment, and offer, we didn’t know what we needed! And sometimes we hated to ask.
So, another step to take in helping others get through their hurt is to “just do something!” Don’t feel like you have to, or can do, everything. Be specific. Practical. And of course, sensitive to who you know your friend or family member to be.
We were so thankful for the many people who didn’t wait for us to tell them what they could do for us – they just did it! Here are some of the things we appreciated:
- People dropped off a meal
- Neighbors dropped off our favorite dessert
- People sent a card
- Friends sent checks or sent money via PayPal
- We had people buy gift cards to our favorite restaurants
- We had friends come and get our laundry
- Several couples from our church asked us to pick a day that was free and a day when we’d be gone so they could come clean our entire home
- Certain people made it a point to just call every week to check-in
- Friends gave us gifts that they knew we would love and appreciate
- Friends and family members bought gifts for our kids, understanding that our suffering was theirs too
- People mowed our lawn
- I had friends who asked to come to an appointment or procedure with me so I didn’t have to wait alone
We could certainly add to the list, but you get the point! Resist the urge to wait for someone to tell you what they need. Don’t feel overwhelmed like you have to do everything. Just do something!
Keep “Showing Up”
And lastly, we would say keep showing up. Long after the crisis, our friends or family members need care. Sometimes it’s easy to offer care and support early on, but much more challenging to keep offering that same encouragement as times goes on.
We have to keep walking with those who are hurting, helping them heal and process whatever trauma or grief they have endured. We were so blessed by those who kept showing up in our suffering. They consistently texted us Bible verses, or a simple text saying, “praying for you.” People kept showing up by continuing to call and ask how we were doing “right now.” We had friends invite us out for dinner or coffee to just talk, listen, and hear how we were doing.
The important thing to do here, is to stick with someone in their suffering. Love never lets someone be alone too long. We love this example in 2 Corinthians 1:3-4:
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.
Our God is a God of comfort and compassion. He consoles us with the presence of His Spirit, His truth, love, and promises (Psalm 94:19). As we receive that comfort from God Himself, we are also called to pass on that same comfort to others. We keep pointing them to God’s Word, the work of Jesus, the power of His love, and the goodness of the Father’s promises.
At some point, in various ways, we will all be confronted with someone else’s pain. Their “this,” will become ours. Their suffering will become ours. We, too, will have to choose to enter into it or walk away from it. We know it is no small thing to walk with someone in their suffering. We know it can feel intimidating. But we hope that this resource gives you some simple and practical ways to feel more comfortable in someone else’s discomfort. We hope that it at least gives you some immediate and tangible things to do with and for your friend who is in the middle of their storm.
Patrick and Ruth Schwenk have dedicated their lives to local church ministry and online ministry. They are the founders of FortheFamily.org, TheBetterMom.com, and their new podcast Rootlike Faith. The Schwenks live in Ann Arbor, MI, with their four children. Their new book is In a Boat in the Middle of a Lake: Trusting the God Who Meets Us in Our Storm.