what seems to help in the midst of pain
“when we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. the friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.” – henri nouwen
this month’s synchroblog is centered on pain & how to love & care for others who are in pain. i laughed this morning because today’s my birthday and it’s a little ironic that somehow even on this day i ended up talking about pain! there’s an awful lot of grief & loss & hard stuff in this world and for some reason it feels like it keeps ramping up. so many hard things every direction. what is our responsibility in it? what should we say or not say? what helps & what hurts?
in our human DNA is a deep desire to avoid pain, either in our own life or in the lives of others.
it’s hard to hurt. and it’s hard to be around other people who are hurting.
at the refuge, our little faith community, there’s a high degree of pain. but i always tell everyone that really, we are no different from almost any other church or group (except that others might have health insurance & live in bigger houses). we just have a culture of raw honesty, where what’s on the inside is freer to come out on the outside. we are trying to be people who welcome pain to the table instead of run from it. most humans share many of the same troubles & woes, but many don’t have a safe place to express it out loud.
pain and struggle often create shame. i remember when i first started sharing more of my real story; every part of me wanted to run for the hills, move away, do anything i could to not have to live with relationships where all my stuff was out on the table, exposed.
i’m always learning, too, but here are a few ideas that seem to help in the midst of pain:
1. less words, more presence. i have a theory that we often have an unconscious hope that if we could say the right words in the exact right way, it would radically help another person. most people aren’t one sentence away from feeling better when they are in pain. presence seems to matter more than words. long-haul-ness goes the furthest for those in pain. many people are eager to help and support at the beginning of pain eruptions, but over time many people drop off and quit wondering how we’re doing. safe people don’t do drive-by pain relief. they are in it for the long haul, which i keep realizing is sometimes the hardest thing of all.
2. less statements, more questions. along with the one-sentence-away-from-changing-everything theory, it’s a natural default to talk instead of listen. i don’t mean interrogation (although i can be guilty of asking too many hard questions in one sitting, ha ha), but questions usually save us from advice giving and fixing. they help people process out loud and take a lot of pressure off us coming up with the right words that can’t be found anyway.
3. less anxiety, more trust. pain creates so much anxiety in us. this is why when people are hurting, we have an instinct to “fix it” or do-something-anything that will help the hurting person feel better in that moment. i feel it all the time. it’s a weird innate control thing and in so many ways, it’s about us playing God and taking on more responsibility than we need to. it’s why i have a love-hate thing with 12 step groups. i love that there’s no cross-talk, advice giving and fixing, but inside i sometimes feel a little crazy that we just thank people for sharing and go on to the next person. however, it models something we need to learn–we can’t fix anyone else. the best thing we can do is listen, honor the pain ,and trust the long healing path.
4. less perfection, more grace. relational dynamics like hanging-in-the-thick-of-pain-with-people is not formulaic. we will screw it up, we will say lame things, we will fail people. recently i gave unsolicited advice to a hurting friend. yikes, as soon as the words tumbled out of my mouth, i knew they would hurt instead of help. i was reminded, yet again, how we need grace as friends, as leaders, as people. we’re imperfect people trying to stay present in hard places; we won’t be able to master every moment. this is messy and sometimes we will have to apologize & ask for grace (and give it to our friends), too.
maybe the best thing we can do to hold the space for others’ pain is to learn to hold the space for ours. if we are people who push our own pain away, we usually will do the same for others. if we are hard on ourselves for feeling certain feelings, we will usually be hard on others, too. i love what the apostle paul says in 2 corinthians 1:3-4, that we comfort others with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. it’s why i don’t think most people need another Bible study or church service; there are plenty of those.
we need places to practice getting in touch with our story.
i’m going to quote henri nouwen twice in one post because it’s a great reminder:
yeah, our biggest strength is our weakness, our pain.
in the end, that’s all we’ve got.
other bloggers writing about pain this month:
- Comforting those who Hurt – K. W. Leslie
- Unto the Least of These – J. Stahl
- Like a Motherless Child – Carol Kuniholm
- Exploding Bridges and How to Help People – Phil Lancaster
- The Ministry of Presence – Glenn Hager
- The Problem of Pain – Chris Jefferies
- How to Be with Those in Pain – David Derbyshire
- When Sorry Seems to b the Hardest Word - Doreen A Mannion
- Mourning with those who Mourn – Jeremy Myers
- What He Told The Home Crowd – Tim Nichols