Sitting around the lunch room table at work, the usual banter and lighthearted chatter ensued. It consisted mainly of complaining about the workload, whining about this manager or that manager and ribbing each other for the foibles we have or the various mishaps that occur at work — all friendly, of course. Politics and religion aren’t discussed.
“My husband and I separated this week,” Said one lady out of the blue.
Well, the room fell silent, people were suddenly staring at the floor and if there had been crickets in the room, you would have heard them chirping. This lady had committed the cardinal sin — she had mentioned something painful and now everyone was uncomfortable and at a loss for what to say.
Finally, I piped up. “I’m so sorry to hear that. Is there anything we can do to support you at the moment?”
Often we retreat from hurting people because we feel ill-equipped to handle them.
Thinking about this lunch room incident, got me thinking. Hurting people need help and support but often we retreat from them because we feel ill-equipped to handle them. We simply don’t know what to do or say. We don’t try to make things better because we fear that we will make them worse.
I’ve been wanting to write on this topic for quite some time. After going through my own personal hell in recent times, I feel qualified to share a few insights about what works and what doesn’t work when it comes to helping the brokenhearted. So many people have said to me, “Sorry I haven’t contacted you sooner. I just didn’t know what to say.” Therefore, I hope that this article empowers you to reach out and help the people around you who you know who are doing it tough.
What to Do
So what should you do when someone you know is hurting? Where do you start? From my experience, here is what really helps:
Do be Physically Present
This is, first and foremost, the best way to help a hurting person. Be with them. Be with them as much as you can, particularly if you are someone who would usually spend time with that person anyway. Don’t cut back your contact! Ramp it up!
I remember one particular day when I was feeling really down, a friend came around and just sat with me. They didn’t say anything or do anything. They were just there. I think I actually fell asleep and they just sat their reading a book while I slept. However, their presence alone provided me with comfort. Presence trumps everything else.
Being physically present when you could be doing something much more interesting or fun is doubly supportive. Your friend will notice that you are sacrificing something and this will speak volumes. It is much more powerful than squeezing them in when it suits you. For maximum impact, inconvenience yourself. Go out of your way to be there for your hurting friend. As Len Wein explains, “A true friend is someone who is there for you when they’d rather be anywhere else.”
Do Listen Without Judgement
Henri Nouwen describes listening as, “A very active and extremely alert form of caring.” Listening is not offering advice. Is it not problem-solving. It IS tuning in to another person’s pain, even when he or she cannot verbalize it. It accepts people as they are — reckless, ill-tempered, joyful, or pensive — and it explores these feelings with them. A person is not ready to receive help until someone has heard their story… often multiple times.
Amy Harwell, in her book, When Your Friend Gets Cancer, explains it like this: “It’s a shame you can’t just talk to the wall and get rid of the ‘toxic energy,’ but there has to be a receiver. You have to talk out your horrible feelings. Somebody has to receive them. The right friend is vital.”
Most of the time when we listen to people, we aren’t actually listening. What we are really doing is trying to think of what to say next. Try to avoid this and really tune in to what the person is trying to say. Basically, shut up and be the wall!
Do Offer Kind Words… Often.
Words of affirmation are like oxygen for a hurting person. There is no doubt about it. If ever you wanted your words to have mileage and weight, then spend them on a hurting person. Honestly.
If ever you wanted your words to have mileage and weight, then spend them on a hurting person.
Tell the person what they mean to you. Remind them why you like them. Say what you appreciate about them. Share with them some precious memories you have of times spent with them. Tell them you love them. When you’re thinking about them, send them a text message. Even if they appear to bounce off, you absolutely cannot go wrong with kind words.
Do Ask These Questions
Write these down! They will save you the trouble of trying to come up with what to say to a hurting person. The most valuable thing you can say to someone who is going through a hard time is, “How can I love you best right now?” or “How can I support you?” or even, “Is there anything I can do to help you?”
Let me tell you why these questions are so powerful. When you ask these kinds of questions, what you are really saying is, “I want to be part of your support network. I am here for you and I want to help.” You are also empowering the hurting person who, chances are, feels pretty powerless.
The most valuable thing you can say to someone who is going through a hard time is, “How can I love you best right now?”
Of course, there is a chance that the person will have no idea how you can help, but there is power in the asking. One final thing… if the person tells you how you can help, then you had better follow through (unless it’s something entirely unreasonable or impossible). Without the follow-through, your hurting friend will soon see your words for what they are. Just words.
Do Remind Them of Their Value
Many people who are hurting are feeling pretty useless — like they are a burden to everyone, and have nothing to offer anyone else. So while, it might seem counter-intuitive to do so, when you ask a hurting person to help YOU with something, it reminds them that they are needed. It also helps them to get outside of their own pain for a little while. Try asking your hurting friend for advice or help with a project. Don’t just say, “You’re not useless. You’re still valuable.” Prove it. Then say things like, “I couldn’t have done that without you,” or “Thank goodness you’re hear for me to talk to,” or even, “I don’t know how I’d get by without you.” This speaks value over the person’s life.
What NOT to Do
So now we’ve looked at some things you should do, we ought to have a look at some things to avoid. Yes, you can actually make things worse. Here’s how:
Do NOT Avoid Your Friend
I get it. A person who is really sad all the time isn’t always going to be a whole lot of fun to be around. However, if you start to hang around your hurting friend less and less, you can guarantee that you are sending them a message and they ARE picking up that message loud and clear.
Yes, it can be emotionally draining to be around a hurting person but, hey… are you a fair-weather friend, or a real friend? In a way, going through a painful experience exposes who your real friends are and sadly, most people have less friends that what they thought. If you really care, you won’t cut back your contact with your hurting friend.
Yes, it can be emotionally draining to be around a hurting person but, hey… are you a fair-weather friend, or a real friend?
Keep inviting them to places and events too, while respecting the fact that they may not be up to actually going out. The danger for hurting people is that they can retreat into themselves and become reclusive. However, when you continue to invite them out, you give them an opportunity to step outside their pain and you are also communicating the message, “I want you to be part of my social circle. I am not embarrassed to have you as my friend.”
Do NOT Try to Explain, Minimize or Avoid the Pain
When I was going through a hard time, some people invited me over for dinner, presumably in an effort to reach out to me. The food was great and they went to a lot of effort. They were hospitable and friendly. There was just one problem. They didn’t ask me how I was. In fact, I got a feeling they were working very hard to avoid the elephant in the room. A lot of people do that. They think avoidance is the best approach. It’s not.
If you are unsure if your hurting friend wants to talk about their pain, then try an open-ended question like, “How are you going with things?” or make a statement like, “I’m sorry to hear that you’re doing it tough. If you want to talk about it we can, but if you would rather not, that’s fine too.”
I had one friend text me once and ask, “How are you doing at the moment?” to which I replied, “I’m really struggling.” No reply. Nothing. Still waiting… three months later. We really are pain-avoiders.
The other thing to avoid offering solutions and advice, unless it is asked for. Most of the time, hurting people just want someone to hear their story.
Do NOT Resort to Cliches and Platitudes
Let’s take a look at some of the cliches that don’t work.
Saying, “I’m thinking of you,” is a brainless cliche unless is precipitates action. If someone says to me, “I’ve been thinking about you,” I can’t help but think to myself, “So what?” Thoughts don’t really help me much. Neither does saying, “I’m praying for you.”
Saying, “I’ve been thinking of you,” is a brainless cliche unless is precipitates action.
Now, I move in religious circles and I do believe that praying helps. However, it is really just a mindless platitude unless it is accompanied by action. By the way, offering all kinds of other Biblical go-to verses doesn’t help either. “God has a plan,” Yeah… He probably does but that’s not very helpful to me at the moment. “Everything happens for a reason,” is also an unhelpful phrase. Sure, send me your thoughts and prayers, by all means. Just back up your faith with actions as well.
Saying, “I’m here for you,” is an empty promise unless you actually mean it. If you’re game enough to say it, then you had better be willing to actually be there when your hurting friend reaches out… day or night.
One last one… do not say, “I know how you feel,” or “I understand.” unless you actually do. If your friend is going through something that you can’t really relate to, and you’re stumped for words just use the simple phrase, “I hear you.” Then follow up with one of the aforementioned questions such as, “Is there anything I can do to help you?”
Do NOT Get Defensive
Here’s something to remember: Hurt people hurt people. And, given that anger is one of the stages of grief, you can expect your hurting friend to be angry some of the time… really angry. And they may vent to you, or even lash out at you. Here is some things to remember when this happens. Firstly, instead of reacting to their anger, ask yourself, “What must be going on for this person to make them act/react like that?” This will help you empathize and once you do that, you’re in a much better position to respond. Secondly, a hurting person’s lashing out may simply be a poorly-expressed cry for help and attention. Respond with kindness, grace and reassurance and you will be more likely to defuse the situation and actually help your hurting friend.
The Final Word:
Barbara Walter says, “The friend who holds your hand and says the wrong thing is made of dearer stuff than the one who stays away.” Therefore, the most important thing to remember is that doing and saying nothing is the worst approach. Period.
Many people start their pain journey surrounded by a strong network of support, but as time goes by, one-by-one, people jump off the train. It can become a very long and lonely journey.
Therefore, I leave you with this final challenge… will you still be there for your friend if their struggle continues for months or even years? Are you in for the long-haul? Remember, a true friend walks in when the rest of the world has walked out.
A version of this post was previously published on Medium and is republished here with permission from the author.
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