I’ve been thinking recently about how people respond to me and to others who’ve experienced difficult situations and trauma... And I’ve been trying to figure out what the difference is between the responses that have soothed, encouraged, and given hope, and those that have hurt or frustrated me.
I was talking with some people recently who have had similar experiences to mine and we all pretty much agreed on what makes the difference between helping and hurting.
First, in order to help us, we need people to express love, empathy, compassion... Intellectual responses devoid of emotion expression are what makes us shut down faster than anything else. If there is no compassion, no empathy, no attempt to understand the struggle, there is no connection. Yes, we need to be encouraged with truth, scriptures, other peoples’ experiences... But if we don’t feel like people are trying to understand both our emotional reaction and our intellectual reaction, it’s hurtful and sometimes offensive. Intellectual reasoning can be very helpful; it just needs to be balanced with love. When we are in intense pain, when we are still trying to pull our thoughts together, while we are still in shock, whatever the case may be, we need empathy and love and active listening.
Second, many of us already know what we need to be doing and are trying to make our way in that direction. The reality is that there are stages we all go through as we process whatever it is that is causing the pain—and there are no shortcuts or ways to just make it go away. Avoiding it doesn’t make it go away, it just makes it fester. When we are in this process, we need people to be sensitive to where we are, and not try to fix us. Gentle encouragement is good, quick fix attempts are not.
Third, in my experience, one of the hardest parts of processing pain and suffering is trying to balance needing to allow myself to go through the emotional stages involved and the cognitive sorting out processes with not allowing myself to wallow in it for too long. That is really difficult. Where we are is where we are. With support we’ll get through it.
Fourth, and this should probably be first, if you don’t know what to say or how to respond, just tell us that. Listen, be compassionate, and give us support, but please don’t make something up because you feel like you have to say something. Don’t worry about needing to say something profound, just be with us.
I guess we can be like Job’s friends and make each other feel like Job—when he said:
“I have heard all this before.
What miserable comforters you are!
Won’t you ever stop blowing hot air?
What makes you keep on talking?
I could say the same things if you were in my place.
I could spout off criticism and shake my head at you.
But if it were me, I would encourage you.
I would try to take away your grief.
Instead, I suffer if I defend myself,
and I suffer no less if I refuse to speak. (Job 16)
Or we can help each other like this:
“A Jewish man was traveling on a trip from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he was attacked by bandits. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him up, and left him half dead beside the road.... Then a despised Samaritan came along, and when he saw the man, he felt compassion for him. Going over to him, the Samaritan soothed his wounds with olive oil and wine and bandaged them. Then he put the man on his own donkey and took him to an inn, where he took care of him. The next day he handed the innkeeper two silver coins, telling him, ‘Take care of this man. If his bill runs higher than this, I’ll pay you the next time I’m here.’ (Luke 10)