One Way to Encourage a Hurting Friend

I read a lot of lighthearted fiction, mostly on the treadmill. But from time to time, the pile of half-read books on my nightstand includes memoirs dealing with death and grief.

Use your imagination

Randy doesn’t understand why I’m drawn to such heavy topics. He’d much rather read real-life adventure sagas starring Navy Seals, Army Rangers or wilderness explorers. You know—your garden-variety survival stories.

If you think about it, however, the books I’m drawn to are survival stories, too. Mostly written by loved ones left behind, they deal with the very real and excruciating aspects of what life looks like in the aftermath of profound loss.

I’m not sure why I embrace such books. Maybe it’s because, for the longest time, I was kind of oblivious to pain like this, and now I’m not. Or maybe I just didn’t know anyone who was hurting in such ways, and now I do.

I want to help, somehow, but before I can even attempt to try, I want to understand. So I pick up books like And Life Comes Back by Tricia Lott Williford, or A Grace Disguised by Jerry Sittser, or The Hardest Peace by Kara Tippetts.

And I read—sometimes very slowly, always with a lump in my throat.

Their stories are all different, but one thing these authors usually get around to sooner or later is the clumsy and insensitive things people say when they are trying to extend a comforting hand.

Unfortunately, most of us don’t need to look very far to find examples of this in our own circles. A friend who was battling cancer once told me that the way people responded to her often was influenced by their fear that what was happening to her would happen to them.

“They say things, sometimes the wrong things, because they want you to make them feel better,” she said.

I hope this is not true for me, though I understand what she meant. But I also know this: whatever the motivation behind our words, when we haven’t been there, it’s hard to know what to say.

So we choke out things like, “I can’t imagine what you must be feeling,” and hope that helps somehow.

The fact is, the person in the midst of loss knows this. She knows we’ve not been there, and she doesn’t expect us to understand completely. What she probably wants, more than anything, is our presence.

But what if we could imagine what she was experiencing? What if, instead of shuddering at the thought of her pain, we actually tried to put ourselves in her shoes?

This is scary, I know. It creates big lumps in our throats. It makes our stomach hurt. It might even make us shed a tear or two.

Nobody wants to think about the unthinkable happening to them. We just don’t. But what if we pushed past the fears in our hearts and purposefully went there—for someone else?

Imagine what it would be like if you were the one to receive the knock at the front door, if you were the one spending hours by the beside in the pediatric cancer ward, if you were the one with the wandering spouse, if you were the one on the receiving end of the life-altering diagnosis.

Imagine the shock, the pain, the ache, the loneliness.

The point isn’t to get caught up in some horrible daydream or gut-wrenching game of what-if. Instead, just for a moment, simply think of what your friend is facing and imagine how you would feel if it happened to you.

Now you have an infinitesimal taste of what she’s going through. You CAN imagine it, because you HAVE imagined it.

You don’t have to tell her, of course. In fact, you probably shouldn’t. But what you can do, now, is care for her more tenderly. If you’ve truly tried to put yourself in her shoes, you can’t help but walk differently from here on out.

I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I used to think that I had to have a reassuring answer for every pain, a bit of wisdom for every problem.

I don’t think this way anymore. In fact, if I’ve learned anything in the past few years—both as a giver and a receiver of encouragement—it’s that tears in our eyes are almost always more comforting than words from our lips.

And if we have to use our imaginations to help us get there, maybe we should do it.

Lois Flowers

P.S. Linking up this week with Kelly Balarie at Purposeful Faith, Jennifer Dukes Lee at #TellHisStory, Holley Gerth at Coffee for Your Heart, Lyli Dunbar at #ThoughtProvoking Thursday, Suzie Eller at #LiveFreeThursday, Missional Women and Grace & Truth.



30 Responses to One Way to Encourage a Hurting Friend

  1. June says:

    I think you are so right, Lois, that quiet knowing which can be communicated simply by our presence is the best gift we can give to a hurting soul. Such a thoughtful post. Have a blessed weekend!

  2. Debra Workman says:

    You know – My Momma used to say “Actions speak louder than words” and I think it is oh so true.
    Thank- you for your words and what you do to help you understand a little better I think that is very wise!
    The one thing I do try to say is that I love them – and then let my actions speak!

    God Bless You!

  3. Carly says:

    Great advice here. I agree that just being there and showing compassion usually means more than anything we could possibly say. I also like to read books about other people’s experiences to help me understand, and I think in imagination can be really helpful in developing our empathy.

  4. Beautifully said, Lois. I am thankful for friends who have cried with me in the valley.

  5. Bethany says:

    This is the best piece I have ever read on the topic on of encouraging those hurting in severe, unimaginable ways. Lois, thank you for sharing. So much! Hoping my hearts takes these words in for a good long time.

    Also, have you ever read Laura Story’s book “When God Doesn’t Fix It”?

    • Lois Flowers says:

      Aw … thanks, Bethany! I have not read Laura Story’s book yet, but I now have a hold on it at my local library. 🙂 Thanks for the suggestion, and have a wonderful day!

  6. Kelly S says:

    You nailed it. I don’t know what to say. You thoughts help me think of ways to step into other’s grief. Thank you for sharing! Visiting from #livefreeThursday.

  7. Kristi Woods says:

    Beautiful words, Lois – purposeful and direct to the heart. When my dad died four months ago, one of the strongest “come along sides” was a fb comment from a blogging friend. She simply said, “I’m sorry.” It meant the world to me. I have a feeling, like you, she knew how to imagine. As a recipient, it’s a wonderful gift.

    • Lois Flowers says:

      Yes … to have someone truly TRY to understand … it is a wonderful gift. Even if they can’t exactly feel what we’re feeling, just attempting to do so means so much. I’m glad a blogging friend offered you that kind of comfort after your dad’s death … so simple yet so helpful. I’m sorry for your loss too, Kristi.

  8. This is beautiful, Lois. The tears in our eyes are more comforting than anything we can say. It is so awkward sometimes to know what to say, and you’re reminding us that we really don’t need to know what to say, just to share burdens and griefs.

    • Lois Flowers says:

      Exactly, Betsy. In the grand scheme of things, it’s easy to get over feeling a bit awkward, but so difficult to process through grief. Even more reason to reach out, even if it makes us slightly uncomfortable! Have a blessed day!

  9. Renee says:

    I also like to read the same types of books, stories from people who have survived difficult times, etc. I think it helps me grow 🙂

    • Lois Flowers says:

      I agree, Renee. I know some people avoid such topics because they are too sad or heavy, but I think these kinds of books are often helpful and encouraging! Glad to know I’m not the only one!

  10. I know exactly where you’re coming from. In fact I sometimes wish I had brain capacity to memorize and internalize some of the great thoughts I read in memoirs because they contain such wisdom. So often I find that what comes to my mind in response to the tragedies of others is thin and not very helpful. Thanks for sharing how these books have helped you – and, I, too am learning that words are not the answer to everything. Blessings!

    • Lois Flowers says:

      “Thin and not very helpful” … yes, I’ve felt that way too, Michele. I also feel kind of clumsy with my words in these situations. The funny thing is, words are not what I need most when I desire comfort, and I don’t think I’m that unusual in that regard! Thank you for sharing your thoughts today!

  11. Such beautiful and wise words, as always. I think we often feel obligated to find that canned response, when our presence speaks volumes. It’s so much more about what they need that what we can offer and our best intentions can muddle that, can’t they. Thanks for showing us a better way. Blessings, Lois and so glad to be your neighbor at #tellhisstory.

    • Lois Flowers says:

      Tiffany, your comment makes me think that, in addition to different love languages, maybe we each have different comfort languages too. What comforts me might not do a thing for you. So I guess the key is really trying to understand and know someone–what makes a person tick as well as what comforts him or her most. Hmmm … I will be thinking about this for awhile! Thank you for your insights and sweet words, my friend!

  12. Lois, your post made me tear up. 🙂 I think you’re so right, sometimes our presence speaks much more loudly, more compassionately than anything we can say.

    Being willing to imagine what a loved one is going through is such a good idea. We have to be intentional, take the time, and allow ourselves to try and feel what our friend/loved one may be feeling. To think along the lines they may think. When we do this, we may be better able to relate to them.

    Thanks so much for sharing with such gentle honesty. I’m so glad we’re neighbors this week. 🙂

  13. Trudy says:

    This is so awesome, Lois. I love your purpose of reading the “heavy” books – to better help and understand those who are hurting. I love your compassionate heart. And I love this – that the “tears in our eyes are almost always more comforting than words from our lips.” I’ll never forget a story I heard about a little boy who went to his neighbor who lost his wife. He didn’t say a word but hugged him and cried with him. Such a beautiful example. I’ll also never forget what a friend once told me. She lost her son just when he finished medical school. She had such a hard time understanding why God would take him just when he would be doing so much good for others. She said what really hurts is when people say things like, “God means it for good,” or “God’s plans are always good.” Things like that made her grief even greater. Sometimes people who are deep in grief aren’t always ready to hear things like that. And I know by experience, too, that a heartfelt hug or tears in the eyes like you said relays more comfort to us than many words.

    • Lois Flowers says:

      Oh, Trudy … I agree wholeheartedly about the hugs! And yes … you are so right about letting people arrive at the truth about God’s plans being good on their own time schedule. Saying things like that to a grieving person almost minimizes their sadness, don’t you think? Thank you for your insights and beautiful encouragement … such a blessing for me today!

  14. Linda Stoll says:

    mmm …

    Lois, I can’t help believing that God is preparing to use you greatly in the lives of other women at a level you may not have glimpsed.

    just sayin’ …

  15. Liz says:

    Beautiful! I’m one of those that will shrink back into the crowd for fear of saying the wrong thing and hurting the already grieving… But you’re so right, when we can actually feel their pain, it is easier to reach out. Thanks for your wise words today!

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