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How To And Not To Support People In Pain

In the movie Regarding Henry the Harrison Ford character is a successful attorney in a prominent New York law firm. Tragically he is shot in an armed robbery leaving him unable to talk or walk. After months of physical therapy, he returns to work and his colleagues don’t know how to relate to him when his cognitive and physical limitations became obvious. His colleagues’ awkward and hurtful responses throw Henry into depression. His motivation to live again returns after a visit from Bradley, his physical therapist. Bradley shares how his dreams of a professional football career were dashed with knee injuries, but that he wouldn’t change a thing. Bradley explained how the knee injuries introduced him to his career as a physical therapist and in that role, he was able to contribute to Henry being able to talk and walk again.

For some, the movie illustrates that attorneys have to by necessity keep themselves emotionally detached from their peers and clients. But I believe it goes deeper than this. On a daily basis we all hear about and relate to people who experience tragedy or some kind of crisis or pain. Most of us are not psychologically equipped to deal with these situations. In fact, the more distant from us, in terms of our own experience, geography or culture, the less likely we are to be able to relate and to respond effectively. So, what can you do to better support those in pain?

Monitor Your Response

When a tragic or painful situation involves someone close you to you, you may find that your strong reaction gets in the way of your ability to be present for that person in their time of need. It is difficult to offer comfort and solace to someone when their condition evokes a strong response in you. When a strong feeling comes up as a result of someone else’s pain or tragedy consider asking yourself, what is the source of this feeling? If you can’t make sense of your reaction you may want to consider sharing the feeling with a trusted friend or counselor.

One all too frequent reaction is to avoid the person. There seems to be an irrational fear in many of us that if we get too close to a tragedy, we risk bringing it upon ourselves. Ask yourself if you are avoiding someone in pain for fear that you will somehow fall victim to tragedy by proximity.

Another reaction is to tell ourselves we don’t know what to say, but often it is something we are avoiding in ourselves that prevents us from reaching out and supporting someone in crisis. Ask yourself if there is something you are avoiding in yourself that prevents you from reaching out and supporting someone facing tragedy.

We further tell ourselves that those in pain are to be avoided because they do not want to speak about their tragedy. We don’t meet them where they are for fear of making them uncomfortable. Ask yourself if this is really your own fear of being uncomfortable that is speaking.

Others of us have not felt supported in our own times of hardship, and so find it difficult to call up the strength or energy to support others. You barely have the strength to carry your own burdens, much less someone else’s burdens. It is important to reach out to find support for yourself, it might be through friends or family or through a professional. Ask yourself what you need to do to “refill your well.”

Still others react angrily, blaming the person’s own bad choices for their condition. It is a sign of dysfunction when empathy is lacking in a time of tragedy. If you experience anger or irritation when faced with others’ pain, this is a signal to go deeper and figure out what this is about.

The bottom line is that we live in a pain avoiding culture. You can’t identify and grieve with people if you haven’t experienced a similar loss or haven’t done the hard inner work to address your own wounds. You need to take ownership of your own emotional situation and attend to that without connecting it inappropriately to someone else’s painful situation.

How To Be Supportive

When tragedy strikes a friend or family member, we are often unsure what we should say or do. Because we don’t want to say or do anything wrong or hurtful, we often don’t say or do anything. This causes us to inadvertently increase the pain that the person is already feeling. Being equipped with practical dos and don’ts for supporting those going through pain or tragedy is a good step for overcoming our uncertainty. Here are a few tips.

  • Ask them what they need. If they can’t communicate what they need, you might ask someone close to them what might be helpful. Practical help like food, running errands or mowing the lawn might be just what they need, but don’t assume without asking.
  • Ask how they are doing. This provides them an opening to talk about what they are feeling and experiencing if they want to. Don’t press them if they don’t want to talk further.
  • Listen. What is helpful to those who are in the throes of anguish is to tell them, “When you are ready to talk about it, I will be happy to listen.”
  • Don’t give advice or information unless it is requested. Advice, resources and information may very well be what they need but avoid providing unsolicited information or advice.
  • Steer clear of trite phrases. Avoid platitudes such as “Everything happens for a reason” or “It will all be OK,” or “God never gives you more than you can handle,” etc. These phrases, while well meaning, do not necessarily add comfort and they may not be true in every situation.
  • Don’t go on at length about your own similar experience. This time is not about you, it’s about the person dealing with the pain or tragedy. One thing that those who have gone through tragedy would like us to know is that they don’t like it when people say, “I know how you feel.” This makes sense, because each person experiences and processes pain and tragedy differently.
  • Sit with them. Don’t feel obligated to say or do anything. Just being present can be a ministry in and of itself. You don’t need to fill every silence and there is nothing wrong with tears. Just let emotions be expressed with no more than a listening presence or an appropriate hug.
  • Pray with them. Most people will find comfort in prayers. And, most people will not deny the opportunity for prayer, but before proceeding it is always wise to ask, “May I pray with you?”
  • Read Scripture. The bible is rich with stories of those who have experienced pain, sorrow, grief and tragedy. There are also many Scripture references that may provide comfort to people of faith. But be prepared before you dive into Scripture and ask permission before proceeding to share.

We all need support at some point in our lives and most of us can never avoid tragedy or pain completely. We can though support each other and carry the burden of pain and anguish together. You don’t have to get it exactly right every time, but you can get better at it by exercising the guidelines above.


Posted on May 24, 2022

Jim Baker

Jim is a Church Organizational Leadership and Management Coach, Consultant and Trainer. Throughout his career Jim has demonstrated a passion for showing Pastors and Ministers how to use organizational tools for church and personal growth and health.

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“For I may be absent in body, but I am with you in spirit, rejoicing to see how well ordered you are and the strength of your faith in Christ.” Colossians 2:5