She knew exactly what I needed. All she did was sit by me, hold my hand and cry. Saying anything would have been pointless. As futile as the accidental death of my 49-year-old father.
If I heard one more “It was God’s will,” or “He lived a good life,” or “He is in heaven looking down,” I swear I was going to deck someone. They too would need a coffin, just like the one that my young father was laying in.
Nope, not her. Not my high school girlfriend. She was wise beyond her years. She knew how to sit with me in my pain, unlike all the well-intended but emotionally incompetent adults in the room.
How do we support those in pain? Most of us need to learn. A few pointers for you:
1. Sit Down and Stay. The message you want to give is that you are there, that you are going nowhere and that you can tolerate their pain without turning away or making them feel better. For when life shows its ugly side, there is no feeling better. All we can do for others is let them know by our presence that they don’t have to struggle alone.
2. Shut-Up. Don’t even try to say the “right” thing or “fix” it. If you do, you are probably trying to get them out of pain that you would rather not feel. Learn to tolerate your own anxiety of feeling uncomfortable and you will then have the capacity to hold someone else’s pain without having to take them out of it. And no pithy remarks as some superficial Band-Aid – even something true like “It’s going to be okay.” This person does not feel like it’s going to be okay. So, duct tape thou mouth.
3. Touch. If the person gives permission (ask!), then touch a hand, a shoulder, an elbow. Physical contact can be comforting when one is in pain.
4. Validate and Empathize. Let them know that their pain makes sense. That they aren’t crazy to have the pain that they do. Mirror what they might be feeling and how awful it is.
5. Relate. When the person is able to take something in, let them know they are not alone. That you too have been through something similar whether it’s loss, divorce, cancer, etc. We all want to know that we aren’t alone in our pain, that we have good company. BUT, be careful not to “one-up” them with your horror story. They are the focus, the one getting attended to right now – not you.
6. Help. Especially if emotional fortitude is not your thing. Bring a casserole, take the kids, do laundry. Do not say, “let me know what I can do.” For God’s sake, just do. When someone is in pain, they usually do not have the energy to practice challenging-on-a-good-day assertion skills. So spare them the life lesson and do something, anything, to make day-to-day life a little easier while they are engulfed in life’s ugly throes.
Ok. Go. Model after my friend. I guarantee that someone whose path you will cross today will be in pain. Go make the world a gentler, kinder place.