Two Keys to Help a Hurting Loved One

Tears streamed down her face as she sat on my apartment floor.

Panic.

What do I do now? How do I respond to a friend I love that is hurting so much?

This friend and I can still laugh about what happened next.

I threw a pillow at her.

Yes, you read that right.  In the midst of deep pain and tears, my friend’s only comfort was her roommate throwing a pillow at her.  

What made me throw a pillow at her, you ask?

Well I’m really not a touchy person. I’m better now, but this same roommate gave me hug lessons earlier in the year because my hugs were apparently that awkward.  While watching my roommate—who I loved a lot—cry, I thought “she needs a hug.  Maybe hugging the pillow will help?”

Ten years later, the Lord has taught me a lot about helping hurting loved ones that doesn’t include pillow throwing.  Mostly through trial-and-error . . .

So how do we do that well without using a pillow?

First, we work through our own pain and insecurities enough to help others.

In the pillow example, my own discomfort with physical touch and emotional pain inhibited me from supporting my roommate well.  I literally used the pillow as a barricade from really connecting and comforting her. It sounds simple enough to just put the pillow aside and give someone a hug, but it wasn’t quite that simple because I had not worked through my own pain and insecurities.

You may not be able to relate to the pillow example, but I bet you encounter other similar scenarios with your own friends and family.  Here are a few examples:

  • You don’t make that hospital visit because it reminds you too much of when you spent endless hours in the hospital with someone you love.

  • You delay calling a friend back when she needs you the most because you can’t stand to think about a Christian man cheating on his spouse.  Does that mean that could happen to you too?

  • You dodge teaching your kids what God says about sex because their questions about that teacher on the news are just too uncomfortable for you to answer.

  • You wait to meet a friend for coffee until a few weeks after his mom died—don’t want to have that conversation when it’s too fresh.

Second Corinthians 1:3-5 (ESV) says, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ's sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.”

If you are not letting the God of all comfort and Father of mercies comfort you in your affliction, you will not be able to comfort those who are in affliction.  Take a step back and work through your own pain and insecurities first. My pain and insecurities are still a work in progress, but I have held many crying teenagers at youth camps since my pillow incident.  That new ability to comfort is a result of letting Him comfort me.

Second, we listen more than we speak.

Hi, I’m Katie, and I’m a rambler.  

I’m not always a rambler, but when I’m really uncomfortable or I don’t know what to say rambling is often my go-to response.

The thing is rambling really isn’t helpful when someone is hurting.

Neither are most Christian clichés.

Neither are out-of-context Bible verses.

When I was studying how to be a counselor, I took this class where we spent over half the semester role playing the best response to a family after the worst tragedy of their lives.  (To give you an idea, my professor wanted us to picture a tragedy like what Steven Curtis Chapman and his family experienced.) Role playing such an intense grief response week after week taught me an unexpected lesson: there are not good words in tragedy.

My classmates and I debated week after week why one response was better than another, but the conclusion was always the same.  Nothing was good enough. Nothing we said could fix it.

After weeks of this exercise, we started focusing on saying less with our mouths and more with our presence.  We made empathic faces, leaned in with our bodies, opened our posture, and said very little. Saying very little is uncomfortable, especially when you’re in a role play where there was never actually someone playing the role of the suffering family.  It meant a lot of silent, painful class periods. It meant holding the heaviness of grief longer than we ever dreamed would be part of grad school. One classmate remarked, “I cry each time I see or hug my daughter because of this class.” Saying very little means we truly enter the pain with someone.  Entering that pain is a lot harder than rambling our opinions and advice.

You know who is pretty good at sitting silently as we cry? God.

Don’t get me wrong, He speaks, but His patient listening is so different than our listening.  Sometimes I wonder if He doesn’t speak audibly to us to show us the importance of using silence well.  I wonder what it would look like to listen to our loved ones the way God listens to us.

These two keys to help a hurting loved one are not easy.  They are among the hardest work you’ll ever do, but they model the sacrificial love of Christ.  May we use the sanctifying work of our own suffering for others and be brave enough to listen more than we speak.