5 Ways to Reach Out When A Friend Is Suffering
I’m still recovering from an appendectomy last month in which the surgeons removed a carcinoid tumor from my appendix. This Friday I will have a right hemicolectomy, which essentially means that a part of my large intestines will be removed and the new end will be attached to the small intestines. In addition, they’ll remove some lymph nodes and blood vessels.
Physically, I’ve had some pain, but mostly I’m weak and exhausted. Emotionally, the thought of going through it again initially shocked me. Even so, my physical and emotional needs have been met.
An outpouring of support has come from friends and family who’ve nurtured me in the past and who’ve I’ve had the chance to nurture. The number and sincerity of people who have reached out has lifted my attitude and prepared me to face another surgery.
How and when to express compassion can be a complex. Sometimes you and I lack confidence, thinking we’re intruding. Or we awkwardly say or do the wrong thing. Even worse, we may do nothing at all.
Has that uncertainty prevented you from acting to help, even in the smallest gesture, or to express sympathy?
Suffering and accompanying needs vary widely according to the challenges and individual circumstances and personalities. But I’ve discovered some commonalities to compassion.
Here’s 5 Ways to Reach Out:
Be Yourself and Give What’s Uniquely You.
After surgery I received a number of little gifts and expressions of care that suited me but also reflected the talent, knowledge or resources of the giver. One friend sent this offer,
“Is there a time that I can come down and give you a shellac pedicure before your surgery? My theory is that if you find yourself in a hospital bed, you should at least be able to look down and see happy toes. Let me know if you have time in your schedule for such a thing.”
It meant so much to me when she and another close friend drove two hours one-way to do this for me, share a lunch they prepared and visit with me. Yes, I was tired afterward, but the physical gesture helped me feel pretty and even more it helped me feel loved.
Acknowledge the Pain and Naturally Express Sorrow for Suffering.
My adult daughter expressed that she’s not sure what to do when I’m hurting. I shared with her what her dad (and my husband) had done late one night when I was so uncomfortable.
He simply said, “I’m sorry that you are going through this.”
Several others have voiced that same phrase with genuine sincerity at just the right moment to help me not feel so alone in my suffering.
Ask Naturally About Needs and Listen Responsively.
So many have listened to me talk about my first surgery experience, my recovery, my anxieties about the next surgery and my challenges with diet restrictions. And I do appreciate that. It helps me process my thoughts. They simply check in on a regular basis and ask questions like, “How are you feeling?” or “What do you have coming up this week?”
One of my dearest supporters has been a friend who’s suffering herself. She regularly texts me, visits, offers to pick up necessities and even brought a gift of flowers intended for her family. She opens her heart and shares specific knowledge she has and then opens her ears and listens for my need.
Resist Placing Yourself in a Position as Teacher or Judge.
By asking questions rather than just giving advice, you help the one who is suffering to retain his or her independence. Try not to make assumptions about the suffering to try to ease it.
When a friend or family member suffers, there is a tendency to want to fix it, as if it is a problem that “if only you did this” then we could relieve that suffering.
Suffering itself does not indicate that the one who suffers has made a wrong choice or is somehow less capable of making choices. That sounds obvious regarding health concerns or the loss of a loved one but not as much with financial or relationship challenges.
Even though we may not intend it, the words we use to comfort and help may come across as minimizing or sound as if we know better. We can and should still speak up. We can apologize when we misspeak and we can gain the skills and experience to know how to say what might be a comfort. Here are some resources to help:
I highly recommend the book On Loss and Living Onward to be a real help to those who grieve.
And you will surely gain a better understanding of ways to help those in financial need while helping them retain their own independence from my own book, Twelve Stones to Remember Him: Building Memorials of Faith from Financial Crisis,
Compassion is Better Late than Never.
The emotion of suffering brings with it an array of negatives, but it can also allow a flow of rich changes in a person’s life. This learning and growth from a challenging experience happens in a process of time during and after an experience that caused the suffering.
After an initial outreach to one in need, the care falls back, but the needs still remain. The pain may be at a lower level, but the healing isn’t yet complete. If you or I haven’t taken the chance to nurture someone in need before this time, it is not too late to extend that compassion. Healing takes longer than we think.
“When you cross a challenge that is expansive and deep,
you may not even realize when you’ve come to the other side.
That day will come. And when it does, how will you look at your crossing?”
That time after the initial period of a big life-altering challenge—think about the months after everyone else seems to have moved on—is a prime time to be a good and true friend to one who has suffered. Then, as you are observant and available to listen, you can be a valued part of the continued healing process.
A friend told me in an email, “I don’t understand why some people seem to be dished more than their fair share of trials.” I don’t want to classify myself this way because I have had a good life. Still, I have had a fair amount of challenges.
Challenges, I’ve discovered, are not just about getting through and solving, but they allow us to stretch deeper into the richness of life and reasons for relationships. As friends of those who suffer, we can join their journey. And if we approach it with sensitivity, we can bless them and be blessed by it.