How Can You Best Support Someone Who’s Suffering?

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Whether you’ve walked through a season of prolonged suffering, or you’re supporting someone who is, you know just how exhausting and challenging the journey can be.

When I was in the thick of my health battle, it was so hard to articulate what I needed in terms of support.  And when you’re on the other side, all you want is to know how to help your loved one who’s hurting.  The fogginess can create frustration and discouragement for everyone involved. 

If you’re someone who’s wanting to support a loved one, but isn’t sure how, these tips below might be helpful.  Because it's SO hard to feel useless when your heart is breaking for them, or if you’re a REALLY close friend or family member, you may even have to endure being snapped at when you’re just trying to help…because escalated pain = escalated emotions.  

If you’re someone who's currently suffering through a hard journey, I hope these ideas are helpful for you to pass along to others, or to help you articulate what would feel supportive.  It’s so important to remember that not everyone is going to know what kind of care you need, but to do the best you can to accept love in any way that they offer it, and to see it as their way of loving you the best they know how.  We’re all just trying to figure out this hard battle together and do the best we can to get to the other side.  There has to be so much grace for one another.  

First, here are a few phrases that AREN’T typically helpful (although 100% well intentioned)…

  • “Let me know how I can help!”
    This leaves the ball in the recipient’s court, and the chance of them actually calling you when they need groceries or a hot meal, are pretty slim, because no one wants to put someone else out, and it's just HARD to ask for help.
     
  • “What do you need?” 
    This is asking the recipient to make a decision, to sort through their pain and figure out what they need in that moment.  It can feel overwhelming to do the inner work of figuring out what you need in terms of support, when you barely have the stamina to get through the day.  So this question can feel like you're being asked to make ANOTHER decision.
     
  • “Get well soon!” 
    This one is my personal least favorite…because how should you even respond to that?  ….I’m trying?  Thanks?  You too?  It’s just a strange sentiment and can even leave the person feeling like they aren’t doing their absolute best already or that somehow if they just had more willpower to get well sooner, it would happen. 

So what IS helpful?  How CAN we hold someone’s heart and hands when we can’t actually remove the pain? 

My husband told me a few nights ago that once he accepted that he couldn’t take away the pain or struggle in those hardest days/months, he was able to better realize what he COULD control.  He couldn’t take the burden, but he could create a space where the burden felt a little less heavy.  He could turn on my favorite music when I was crying, he could light a candle on my dresser when I had to stay in bed all day, he could read scripture out loud when he couldn’t find the right words to say.  When the shadows were heavy, he’d ask himself, “How can I add more light to the dark space?”  

As humans, we can’t dictate exactly when or how healing happens, but we CAN add more beauty, more presence, more good tasting food, more soothing music, more hugs, more soft blankets, more pleasure, more joy.  And that truly does go a long way in helping someone heal. 

Looking back I think of the ways that I felt really loved, and it was always through the friends and family who had the incredible capacity to just to DO.  The ones who dropped off flowers by my door, who wrote me letters, who came over with a bottle of my favorite kombucha and let me cry it out, and who left me voicemails of prayers or songs they sung over me.  And if you're reading this and thinking "I WISH I had friends like that," know that sometimes we have to tell people what we need, even if it feels hard or like we shouldn't have to.  You are loved and people genuinely want to support you.    

There were also times when someone was trying to help, but it didn't feel helpful at all, or even could feel triggering.  Now I can see that we were all just trying to muddle through pain the best we could.  Ultimately, no love is in vain, so don’t worry about getting it all right or saying the perfect thing, just do your best to give and to receive and remember that we’re all in this hard beautiful life together.  Hopefully these tips help to provide a little more insight to help navigate this road for you or for someone you love.  

Have you ever felt really supported in a time of suffering?  Would you share in the comments below what was most effective for you?  We can all learn so much from each other!