Have you ever been in the midst of a great time of testing or trial? Maybe something catastrophic has happened in your life and you don’t know how on earth you’ll ever make it through. That’s how I felt when my husband and soul mate took his life 3 years ago. So many well-meaning and dear people walked alongside of me during the past few years to help me heal and for that I will be eternally grateful.
There are, however, a few things that as the sufferer I’d like to pass on; things that were helpful during the times of great duress, and things that were not so helpful. The first is this: we need to understand that grief and suffering are extremely personal. It may take one person a year to grieve a loss, while it takes another six years, but no one has the right to tell you how long your sorrow should last or how your struggle should look.
I did an interview with Kay Warren last year on my radio show Heartline, and Kay talked very openly and honestly about how people’s expectations for her to “get on with life” after her son’s suicide hurt her deeply. I remember a friend saying to me after 6 months of Mike’s death, “Oh you’re still having bad days?” Really? We live in a society that has no patience with sorrow, perhaps because it makes us so uncomfortable. What did I need from well-meaning friends? Empathy. “I’m so sorry you’re still struggling; how can I help?” That would have been perfect.
When someone is walking through a dark night of the soul, please don’t tell them “It could be worse.” And don’t go on to tell them what so and so is going through. That’s called minimizing and it’s not helpful for the one who is suffering. It’s telling the person that what happened to them wasn’t that bad and they should be grateful they don’t have the other person’s problems.
That may be true, but when you’re drowning you need a life preserver not a lecture on gratitude. Remember, if you’re trying to minister to others, focus on their feelings. They really aren’t interested in what someone else is struggling with at the moment because they are immersed in their own pain.
When my husband took his life, even as a psychotherapist, I found myself in unchartered waters. I joined a grief group at my church for support which was great, but all the people in the group had lost their spouses to cancer. That was very different than what I was dealing with. While people could say they knew how I felt, the truth was, they didn’t. And even though I had lost a parent to cancer, I still couldn’t know the totality of their pain.
No one can know how you feel. You are unique, and your trials and sufferings are unique to you, and to that which you may have lost. No earthly person shares your DNA so they can’t know just how you feel. There is only one who can do that. Enter Jesus.
For some, not having that understanding from family or friends may make you feel isolated or alone, but the truth is, there is no better way to push you ever so gently into the arms of the one who does understand then that feeling of loneliness: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are--yet he did not sin.” Hebrews 4:15.
While others may not understand the depth of your pain, draw comfort that God that he gets it. He will never dismiss or minimize your feelings.
Finally, when I’m having a bad day don't remind me of how far I’ve come. I know people are trying to encourage me. I even know it’s true, but some part of me feels it’s disrespectful to Mike. It feels like he wasn’t important enough for me to still feel deep pain and sorrow. Even though the pain looks different today, it's still there and it always will be.
What does the sufferer need? Understanding in the moment. I am allowed to have bad days and on those days I need you to just sit in it with me. Don’t try to fix me. Don’t remind me how far I’ve come. Don't tell me about how bad someone else has it. Just acknowledge my pain and understand that no matter how much time goes by, I’m always going to hurt.
We’ll never know all the right things to say to people when they’re hurting. I know I’ve said some pretty stupid things to others in the past just trying to be helpful. If you’re wondering what to say, or feel like you don’t have the right words to comfort someone, say nothing. Just offer a hug, put your arms around them, pray for them, cry with them. We don’t have to fix people who are hurting, we just need to let them know we care and we’re available.