The Awkward Dilemma of a Suffering Friend

How to Help the Suffering - Do's and Don'ts

This past year I became intrigued with how many different ways a person can respond to trials. Part of the trial is the the awkward situation it places on relationships.

As I began my journey through the most difficult season of my life it became clear I didn’t suffer “normally” (whatever that is).  For the longest time I felt that I didn’t have a right to speak on the subject of grief because of the magnitude of my loss.  My story seemed so different than that of others.  But the more I talked to others who have suffered loss, the more I see a common hurt among those grieving.  

As I became increasingly aware of other losses around me, I noticed the trend of an unnecessary burden that grieving people carry.  The words and actions of others. The first thing I noticed were the innumerable blogs of “how to help those who grieve”.  I didn’t exactly hyperventilate, but I would find myself mentally shouting “Oh NO! Please don’t tell people that!”.

I began to compare myself to others who were grieving.  I finally concluded something was definitely wrong with me.  I didn’t act like others, my grief didn’t look like that of others, and I couldn’t understand what others were going through.  I simply could not fit the grieving mold. I finally confided in a friend, who had a many years of counseling experience, and asked what was wrong with me.  His simple statement was……”People grieve like they live.  If they live publically, they will grieve publicly.  If they live privately, they will grieve privately.”  Though that seems like logic, for some reason this was revelational for me.   There isn’t a grieving flowchart. God’s people must come to understand that the grieving process isn’t a one size fits all.

I am the private sort.  I actually had someone sit down across from me and ask for details of my loss within 30 minutes of meeting her.  After that one meeting I began dealing with anxiety.  I would have this increased feeling of heaviness in my chest to the point of wondering what a heart attack felt like.  I remember being scared because I felt like I couldn’t breathe.  It was then that my daughter admitted she had those exact feelings and we learned what anxiety was.  I had such a hard time accepting this new concept. In my pre-grief, legalistic life there was no such thing as things like anxiety or depression.  Those were spiritual issues that Christians dealt with when they didn’t trust God’s plan.

For the longest time I kept as isolated as I could in order to avoid talking to people.  I never knew how to talk about grief, nor did I want to.   I never knew if or when the topic would come up.

I have had many people ask me how they should respond to grieving people.  After much deliberation, I started on a journey to understand suffering.  I recently asked people what was most helpful and hurtful in times of trials.  The responses were as diverse as the personalities of the people giving them, which really shouldn’t be surprising.  Suffering and trials are graciously customized by the very One who created us. Suffering is personal and will not be like another’s.  But there was a common thread of popular responses that others have shared that were uplifting or crushing. 

Here are some key things to know:

  1. Do you really know the person grieving? If you have not established a long term relationship with them or have some sort of history with them, it may not be the time to step in. If you feel you must do something, flowers, cards or a simple dessert are adequate.  Don’t push them to talk if they don’t want to. 
  2. Give them time to process. Don’t force them on a timeline.  It could be a month or it could be a year before they are ready. 
  3. Don’t be a “fruit inspector” during trials. They will speak and talk irrationally while processing.  They will make mistakes. Dross forms when God is working. 
  4. Discern their personality. This is key.  If they are public and open, they may be easier to approach.  However, those who are private may feel cornered and be mentally looking for an escape route. They still need friends in their lives but relationship is key so approach slowly. 
  5. Use Scripture carefully. Scripture is meant to be used as a foundation not thrown like a brick. I can assure you that those who have experienced any amount of loss or suffering have heard, “It’s God’s perfect plan”, “He meant this for good”, “He won’t give you more than you can bear”, “You need to keep trusting Jesus”, “You need to read your Bible more often”, etc….it can be an exhausting list. Are these things true? Probably. Are you the one that needs to be speaking that into their life?  Maybe. Maybe not.  Be sure you know your boundaries.  When you speak to someone who is going through a terrible spiritual dry spell and you question them about trusting God, it makes them feel like a failure and often makes the matter worse.These types of conversations need to happen in a setting where there is deep exchange of heart issues.  NEVER in passing.  That can come across as flippant, trite, and often taken out of context. 
  6. Never “outdo” their situation with a story. Comparison stories were by far one of the most commonly-mentioned hurtful responses. They are meant to make someone feel like they are in good company, but they are rarely received that way and can be very hurtful.  A dear friend of mine was in shock of losing a spouse very suddenly.  Someone compared her trial to the loss of a pet just a few days earlier.  I am certain that person was grieving the loss of their pet.  That is a hard.  But it was a very insensitive time to bring it up. 
  7. The words “I completely understand” can be upsetting to a person who knows that you don’t. Never use that statement.  Because none of us can really understand how anther person feels. 
  8. NEVER use the combination of words “At least.” Nothing beneficial follows. Period. It only minimizes their hurt. 
  9. Don’t tell them to forget what happened and move forward, time heals all wounds, or God won’t give you more than you can handle (YES He certainly will! That’s another blog for another day 😊 )

The resounding reply that WAS helpful to others was…… be present, silent and not try to fix.  Sometimes they just want to talk. This is the best way for a person to process.  It’s frustrating when people try to jump in and counsel and fix.

What if you love that person but you are not necessarily close?

  • Cards and notes. This is a very non threatening way to let someone know how you feel and let them know they can reach out to you.  Many times I would feel encouraged with my box of cards and letters.  I appreciated that so much.  I could choose to read them when I was emotionally able at my own pace.
  • Sometimes nonverbal love is the best. Mow their lawn if you see the need.  One day my pastor’s wife walked in with my laundry. Washed, dried and folded!  It was such a blessing I knew nothing about.  Another time I came home to a clean house!
  • Get a few friends together and make freezer meals and send with a close friend. This was the biggest life saver for me!
  • Gather people together to pray for that person. Each person add something to a basket. Coffee, card, gift card and let them know they have been prayed for when you deliver the basket.
  • Be observant and just help in non-obtrusive ways. We often want to ask “What can I do to help?” this is normal but usually the person suffering is overwhelmed and doesn’t even know their needs. Try to be observant.  Some of the most helpful things can be something as simple as finding paper products like toilet paper, paper towels, and paper plates left on their porch. One story I read, a man visited close friends and polished the family’s shoes for the funeral.  Something they never would have thought about.

In summary, what your friend probably wants you to know is they have been called to walk a hard road paved with confusion.  It’s extremely difficult to process.  Don’t try to judge their actions or fix their heart.  That’s God’s job.  Don’t try removing the thorn, that’s God’s job too. They may come across as rude or not thankful when they are simply trying put pieces of their life together.  In my experience it can feel like drinking from a firehose.

This is all from the fallible human experience of me and others.  We should be so grateful that God gives us perfect direction.

1 Thessalonians 5:14

And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.

Ephesians 4:2

…with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love,…
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