Caring When It Really matters

Last week I talked about how we might encourage a struggling friend going through a tough situation by just showing up and being kind. While last week the focus was on listening to your friend, you may be wondering what on earth you are going to say (because you can’t just sit there, listen and not say anything.) For many people that fear of saying the wrong thing is very real. The last thing we want to do is mess up in some way. We worry that we could upset our friend more by bringing up the situation or mentioning their loss, so we don’t call or visit.

I’ll address that issue first.  When someone suffers a serious loss, you won’t upset them by speaking or asking how their day is. You won’t be reminding them of it, because it will be first and foremost in their minds. Many years ago, a family down our street lost their 14-year-old son in a terrible horse riding accident at a church camp. A couple of weeks later I thought I’d go and visit the mum to offer my condolences. As she opened the door to let me in, I promptly burst into tears and couldn’t speak. I was horrified, however, she really appreciated the visit. Once I settled down, she shared about her son and their family and how God was helping them. There were lots of tears and occasional laughter as she mentioned some of his actions. My being upset didn’t remind her of her son’s death – that’s all she could think of before I showed up – and for a long time afterwards. Obviously, if you are terribly distressed, wait until you’ve settled a bit before calling or visiting.

What might you say to someone?  I can offer suggestions on what NOT to say. Do not say, “I know how you feel”, “I know what you’re going through” even if you’ve been in a similar situation. We can never know how another person truly feels because we’re all very different; our life experiences, situation and personalities are different from one another. By saying something like that you close off the opportunity for your friend to share how he/she really feels. Don’t share your experience unless your friend specifically asks you to and then be wary of letting it become all about you. Keep the focus of the conversation on them. Only share advice if they ask for it, as they have very likely received plenty of it already.

We need to be wary of going straight to worst-case scenarios (because realistically, they’ve probably already done that themselves) and it may well make them feel even more afraid than they do. I saw a saying recently that we all do well to remember. “When life gives you lemons, I won’t tell you a story about my cousin’s friend who died of lemons.” 

Unbridled optimism can be very annoying to a person experiencing difficulties and may well make them feel worse. Not everybody or every situation is going to improve (at least not in the short time) and by being too optimistic, we effectively shut down true and honest sharing.

If someone shares their feelings and trusts their fears and pain with you, please do NOT share what they say with others.  We are at our most vulnerable when experiencing pain, and may say things we don’t want the world to know.

We can’t fix another person’s problems or even reduce their worries, but we can provide a safe place where they can voice those things. The greatest gift you can give someone you care for is your presence and a listening ear.