We’re not very good at dealing with pain, are we?
And it’s a funny thing. Because the one thing we can be sure of in life is that we will suffer. We will have our hearts broken. We will get ill. We will lose loved ones. Things will hit us out of the blue. We will feel pain of all kinds.
It’s part of being human.
But we’ve never been taught how to prepare for pain – or live through it. We run from it, scared. We push it down and try to not feel anything. We distract ourselves and try to pretend we’re fine.
So when someone we love goes through a life crisis, we are also at a loss as to how to support them. We try our best, but we are often so terrified of feeling pain ourselves, that we act as if it’s contagious. We stay away from others when they’re experiencing grief, depression or illness, lest we get dragged down with them.
Or we try to pull them out of their grief before they are ready. We try to cheer them up and distract them, because we find it so hard to see them struggling.
1. Show Up
There is no substitute for just showing up. Just being there. You don’t have to have the right things to say. You don’t have to say anything at all. But you do have to be there.
If you really want to be a support and comfort, you keep showing up. Especially after the first weeks or months.
Many people are wonderful at the moment of crisis – they will drop everything for the funeral, the surgery, the newborn arriving home. But then they disappear when the real support is needed. In the long weeks, months and years when you feel all alone in your struggle. When you’re desperate for someone to just notice what you’re going through and let you know they understand.
I know it’s hard. But your showing up over and over again is a service that will be felt and remembered.
2. Don’t Try to Fix It
You probably can’t. And that’s okay. You don’t have to have any answers. Some things are just sh*t. Trying to clumsily ‘fix’ someone’s pain by telling them they’ll ‘get over it’ just makes them feel more alone – because when you try to fix someone you push them away.
I’d also like to ban the phrase “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger!” Maybe it does. But I’ve never found that.
My experience has been that trauma breaks you down and breaks your heart open. It can make you kinder, wiser, more compassionate. I became very aware of how fragile life is, how vulnerable we all are. And how much we need to be gentle with ourselves and others.
Rarely can a response make something better. What makes something better is connection.
– Brene Brown
3. Don’t Compare It to the Time You Had Something (Not) Similar Happen to You
Don’t forget it’s not about you. Everyone’s experience of pain is unique to them. And if you jump in with your own tale of woe, it stops the conversation.
To help, you need to get comfortable with discomfort. You need to be able to sit with the difficult feelings that come up in the presence of someone else’s pain. You want to make everything okay, but you can’t. The best thing to do is to bring empathy.
Brene Brown has some wonderful, wise words to say on the difference between empathy and sympathy in this quick 3-minute video:
4. Bring Books & Movies & Tales of the Outside World
When you’re stuck indoors (at home or in hospital) there is nothing like companionship. Watching a cheesy chick flick on your own feels a bit sad. But with someone else, it becomes the best kind of shared girlie escapism!
For readers like me, books can be the ultimate comfort – bring lots! Bring books that are light-hearted for when you don’t want to think. And books that help a person feel less alone – because they are about navigating the very same kind of suffering.
The longer you spend indoors, the less connected you feel to the outside world – this can lead to its own kind of despair. When visiting a friend or family member who is housebound, make sure to bring plenty of tales from the outside world – gossip, observations and any and all kinds of news.
5. Cook, Clean & Help Out
During tough times, acts of service can be more powerful than any words you say. When our lives have been broken, it is impossible to muster the energy to keep up with the little tasks of life.
Simple acts of kindness can be enough to carry someone through the worst of an ordeal.
- Bring soup. Or any nourishing food you can think of.
- Clean the house
- Babysit children
- Pick up prescriptions and do errands
- Accompany your friend/family member to the doctor/therapist/solicitor
6. Check Your Own Emotions
In the midst of all this caring, make sure not to neglect yourself. Witnessing others go through difficult experiences can trigger buried feelings of your own.
Rather than being scared by this and running away, decide to use it as an opportunity to heal your own scars. Bring what you’re feeling out into the light so that you can understand it, feel it and let it go.
Did any of this ring true for you? Are you currently going through a difficult time or do you know someone who is? How have you been helped in the past or how have you helped someone who is struggling?