ISSUES OF FAITH: How to help a friend in pain

When someone we love is hurting, we want to do everything within our power help alleviate their pain. It’s only natural to respond by offering up advice and assistance. This is what compassionate people are supposed to do, right?

Maybe not.

According to psychotherapist and grief expert Megan Devine, trying to cheer people up by telling them to be strong, to persevere and to move on doesn’t actually work.

It seems counterintuitive, but the best way to help people is to let them be in pain.

This is true for those giant losses and the ordinary, everyday ones.

For as Parker Palmer once wrote: “The human soul doesn’t want to be advised or fixed or saved. It simply wants to be witnessed … exactly as it is.”

He’s talking about acknowledgement here. He’s talking about being truly present and bearing witness to our loved ones in pain, even when it can’t be made right.

For example, somebody is struggling — their baby died or there’s been a bad accident, or their loved one has just received a terminal diagnosis, and they’re devastated. It’s way more helpful to join them in their pain than to try and cheer them up.

Saying things like “You have two other children. You need to find joy in them.” Or, “You know what you need? You just need to go out dancing and shake it off.” Or, “I felt really sad once, have you tried meditation?”

We’re not really sure what to do with someone’s pain, so we do what we’ve been taught.

We look on the bright side.

We try to make people feel better.

We give them advice.

We try to cheer people up because we think that’s our job.

We’re not supposed to let people stay sad.

The problem is, you can’t heal someone’s pain by trying to take it away from them.

Acknowledgment, on the other hand, does something different.

When a giant hole opens up in someone’s life, the most supportive thing we can do is to listen deeply, acknowledge the hole and — with all the love in our hearts — let the pain exist.

This is because it’s pretty rare to be able to talk somebody out of their pain. In order to really support our loved ones, we need to acknowledge that things really are as bad as they feel to them.

If we try to cheer them up, they end up defending themselves and their feelings. If we jump in with our advice, they feel misunderstood instead of supported.

So, when somebody shares something painful, it’s much more helpful to say, “I’m sorry that’s happening. You want to tell me about it?”

To them to be able to say, “This hurts” without being talked out of it — that’s what helps.

The simple act of being heard is what helps. Yes, it may seem too simple to be true, but acknowledgment is the best medicine we have.

It makes things better — even when they can’t be made right.


Issues of Faith is a rotating column by religious leaders on the North Olympic Peninsula. The Rev. Kate Lore is a minister at the Quimper Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Port Townsend. Her email is [email protected]

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