'When I run across someone who is really hurting, I just clam up. What do you say to someone like that, especially if you've never experienced what they are going through?'
I get this one a lot, because a lot of my career has been spent as a pastor and pastors are expected to have something approximating a good answer to such questions. But it is relevant to being a consultant too, or a leader of any kind.
When you see someone hurting - because of a seemingly random tragedy or because of a self-inflicted wound or because of a simple cruel twist of fate - it can create fear and anxiety in you.
You're afraid the same thing could happen to you, so you don't want to go near them. Perhaps pain is contagious?
You think things like "Well, you dummy, if only you'd have listened to...none of this would have happened" but you sense that this would not be a helpful thing to say.
(You are correct, by the way. It wouldn't be.)
Or you just flat out don't know what to say.
So, what do you say? Four things:
Saying something is almost always better than saying nothing. Seriously. Not everything is better than nothing, (see 2 below) but almost everything.
Saying something, even if it is inarticulate or has been said before, shows that you care, that you want to make a connection with the person.
When our family endured the loss of an unborn child far along into Miranda's pregnancy, we were overwhelmed with the love of our friends and even people we weren't particularly close to. But there were a few others who, inexplicably, stayed away.
One approached Miranda later.
This person said "I just did not know what to say and it was really hard so I avoided you".
Now, if you have had someone treat you this way, don't be too hard on them. No one does this out of malice or ill-intent.
But if you are not sure what to say to a hurting friend, whatever you do, don't avoid them. That compounds the hurt. Say something. Say it quickly after the deepest cut of the hurt.
First responders are our heroes - the police officers, firemen, military, and emergency medical personnel who run to a disaster. Be a first responder when it comes to the pain of others.
2. Something brief
If a person is hurting it feels like life is screaming at them. They are trying hard to silence the voices in their head..."If you'd only said"...."How could you have done that?"....."Why did God allow this to happen?".
It feels like there is no relief. So don't add much to the cacophony of voices. Don't quote someone's sermon. Don't be too quick to share similar experiences of your own (see 3 below). Don't tell them things will get better, because they might not for a while. Don't minimize their pain, no matter its source.
Be brief. Sometimes "I'm really sorry. I know you must really be hurting" is perfect. In fact, almost all of the time it's perfect.
3. Something about them
Don't make it about you. Now, this is easy to do because if you are nervous or struggling for something to say you can always go to the subject you know best - yourself.
But even if you are talking to someone who is enduring a pain similar to one you have endured, their experience will be vastly different than yours, because they are vastly different than you are. What eased your pain may make theirs worse.
Whatever you do, friends, do NOT say "I know exactly how you feel".
This is a nails on a chalkboard, a squawking infant at 3:47 AM, Dick Vitale with a sore throat. It's intolerable and it's untrue.
The only thing that is worse is to try to draw moral lessons or to explain the ways of God to a person who is hurting. Good luck with that.
If you are a person who reads the Bible, you'll know that there are two exemplars of the making-a-moral-point and explaining-the-ways-of-God school: the friends of Job in the Old Testament and the Pharisees in the New Testament.
Both groups had one thing in common - their hearts were very far from God and they get crunched in the end. If you are hurting and someone begins a lecture of any sort or a theological explanation of any stripe, run for the hills as politely as you can. Run.
Remember, "I'm sorry"? When you go to someone who is hurting, go with that.
Go with that and connect it to them.
"I'm really sorry. You must really miss your husband."
"I'm really sorry. Losing your job must really be a blow right now."
"I'm really sorry. I know that diagnosis is scary for you".
Do you see how you can't go wrong with any of those statements?
You're connecting with them, talking about their experience, offering your sorrow. That's a great and lasting gift.
4. Something About You and Them
This one applies in particular if you have a relationship with the person.
To suffer is to feel alone, to feel like things will never get better, never work out, that the pain will never stop and that there is no one who can enter into that pain with you.
And no one fully can enter into that pain with you, to be sure.
But you can connect with the person who is hurting.
At times in my life when I have been in pain, the words that gave life were such as these:
"I am here for you no matter what".
"I've got your back and the backs of those you love".
"You're my friend and I love you now even more than I did before this really hard thing happened".
Brilliant, life-giving statements. But here's the deal - You. Have. To. Follow. Through.
None of this requires a degree, any special knowledge, or a type of particular experience.
Just a heart of love and some common sense.