Reflection: Helping a Hurting Friend

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When a friend sits across from us, her story of grief and pain spilling from her lips, her eyes, and her body, our first instinct is often to want to help; we long to take the pain away, to do whatever we can to make her feel better. And so we grasp for words that we hope will do that: “Everything happens for a reason.” “God won’t give you more than you can handle.” “This must be God’s will.” But we realize, don’t we, as soon as those words are uttered, how hollow they sound? Those who have been on the receiving end of such phrases know that any words that offer a quick fix end up falling short.

The greatest error we make when caring for a hurting friend---and this is not a one time act, but more of a cultivated habit over time---is that we are away. We hear our friend's pain from a place of being away from ourselves, away from our own humanity, our own vulnerabilities, weaknesses, powerlessness, and helplessness.

The more we are a stranger to our own pain and vulnerabilities, to our own humanity, the more we will be a stranger to our friend's; we won't know how to be with him, because we have never been with ourselves. It’s because of our discomfort with suffering and vulnerability that we end up speaking those unhelpful platitudes; they might help us feel better, but they do nothing for our friend.

So, how can we help a hurting friend?

Maybe the best we can do is to be willing to be fully present, showing that we are not repelled by or uncomfortable with his suffering, but willing to sit with him in the midst of it. We can create space where he can talk, yell, rant, cry, or simply be quiet, offering to him the gift of compassion.

We can be slow to speak; we don’t need to fill the air with our words. She doesn’t need our advice or our judgment or our theology. Our words won’t wipe away her pain, but our ability to see, acknowledge, and be with her in the depths of her pain might be a source of comfort. If we do speak, we can offer simple words that give voice to the both reality of her suffering and our own empathy.

We can remember that her pain will outlast the initial incident. Long after the funeral is over, the divorce papers are filed, or the others involved have seemed to move on, our friend is likely still hurting. We can be the friend who continues to check in, to call, to ask, to invite.

Finally, we can help by being self-aware: we need to understand why we are doing what we are doing. If we find ourselves talking too much we may want to ask ourselves why. If we find ourselves drawn to be with our friend every waking hour, we might ask why. If we feel ourselves overwhelmed with emotion in such a way that we become the one who is hurting, we need to ask why. We need to understand what we can and cannot do for our friend.

Each of these ways that we can help our friend will come more naturally to us as we become more comfortable with our own brokenness and vulnerability. And, as we grow in this area, we will find ourselves less and less likely to reach for those hollow sounding words when a friend shares his story of pain. We will be more and more able to simply hear his story without needing to solve his problems. And that is a beautiful gift to offer to someone who is hurting.


Julianne Gilchrist