A 4-Step Equation for Helping a Friend in Pain

First published July 28, 2015 on mariashriver.com⎟440 Recommended This

"Together" by Eflon, via Flickr, Creative Commons verified 01/01/17

"Together" by Eflon, via Flickr, Creative Commons verified 01/01/17

Cancer survivor Emily McDowell made the national news this summer with a line of genuinely comforting “empathy” cards.

Her cards debunk those easy-to-say platitudes that can be pleasing on coffee mugs and wall calendars but sound hollow when life is in a million pieces, and you don’t know how to get from one day to the next: Everything happens for a reason; when a door closes, a window opens; we are never given more than we can bear....

Why do we resort to these tired phrases when friends are in desperate straits? Sometimes we don’t know what to say, and they do, seemingly, express acceptable hopes and beliefs. The idea of a new “window” opening or the possibility of reason behind apparent randomness offers the solace that we are part of a higher good, that our suffering will ultimately have a meaningful purpose.

There is a difference, however, between claiming such convictions for yourself and having them thrust upon you by a well-meaning friend.

I’m not sure which is worse: platitudes from a person attempting consolation or gloom and doom from a person who can see no possibility of it. A few months after my husband died, I rather desperately visited a former neighbor who had been widowed twice. She had, I assumed, come out well enough on the other side of grief at least once. I remembered her at the grocery store with her second husband. She was slightly stooped by then and wrinkled, but laughing like a schoolgirl as she added a head of lettuce to a basket with steaks and baking potatoes.

Years later, again widowed, she was thinner, almost birdlike in her fragility, and the wrinkles on her face had deepened to grooves. We sat stiffly in a family room that seemed more like a church parlor or museum—there was not an open book, stray pen, tissue, anything that hinted at the messiness of living. She stared at me sympathetically, fingering the sleeves of her cardigan. A grandfather clock ticked.

“It doesn’t get any better,” she said at length, as though stating a fact she regretted but felt obligated to divulge. “You learn to live with the pain.”

I left feeling even more desolate, wondering how this was possible.

But the simple fact of reaching out, no matter how awkwardly, is better than vanishing or remaining silent. I know a woman who told of being around town, heartbroken, after her son had been killed in a car accident. Friends and neighbors, she said, would sometimes cross the street to keep from having to speak to her. Of course these people gave her a wide berth for the same reason people say misguided, hurtful things: They're dumbstruck by the enormity of grief and unable in the moment to imagine being in those terrible shoes.

There are no right words for chance meetings on a curbside, if “right” means words that will take away grief. I’m sorry for what you’re going through is the truth, and nothing better can be said in the space of a few seconds or minutes.

What about when you’re in the same room, though, and you'll be there for a while? What do you say when you can hear the clock ticking or the see IV dripping? What do you say when you want to be comforting but the words aren’t there?

Here is an equation to follow:
Add the reality: I don’t know what it’s like to...

+ the situation: lose a child, have cancer, be in early dementia (or whatever makes your friend’s plight different from anything you may have experienced. My neighbor could have said “I don’t know what it’s like to be widowed so young.”)

+ what you would like to do: I wish I knew what to say.

+ what you can do: I can listen.

Then be quiet. Your friend will tell you, perhaps not directly, what she needs from you. She may not want to talk at all. She may just want your company to go grocery shopping. In grief or illness, the most mundane activities become hard.

Don’t pretend to have answers no one has. My husband took his own life. Hundreds of times I asked my mother, “How could he do this to me?” Hundreds of times, she replied simply, “I don’t know, honey,” until I stopped asking. I finally accepted in its incompleteness the only answer I had, will ever have: He lost himself; it wasn’t about me.

You don’t need answers. You only need to allow the questions. And if you ask your own, make certain they are coming from a place of compassion, not curiosity.

Variations of this equation will work many times. As you listen, you will become more adept at knowing what to say. Chances are, though, you’ll realize in your friend’s relief that listening is often enough.