Through my experiences I have gained a little insight into what was helpful for me during my time of suffering, and my hope and commitment is that I can use this experience to be there for others in ways that are helpful for their healing.
These are the lessons I learned. I hope they will be helpful for you in supporting others through suffering:
It sounds simple, but this is really the most important thing you can do for someone who is suffering. It is also incredibly difficult to do well. However, if you can love them at their worst, this is true love. Look to how God loved the world, and how Jesus treated the hurt and broken, and this provides a great example to follow. Many people will avoid them or leave them in this time as they won’t necessarily be fun to be around at times. Be the person that stays with them, no matter what.
Suggestion on what not to say: “You’ll be fine”
Suggestion what to say: “I’m here for you, no matter what”
Healing takes as long as it takes. Yes, there might be ways to speed up healing, just as there are ways to prolong it, however if they are not yet ready to take certain steps, let them take their time. The worst thing you can do is tell them they should be “over it” by now. When people told me this I thought I was a failure, and it made the suffering worse. Be gentle, and patient. This type of kindness is more healing that you will ever know.
Suggestion on what not to say: “It’s been X months/years. You should be over this by now”
Suggestion what to say: “I’m so sorry you are still hurting.”
Be quick to empathise and slow to offer advice
Unless asked for, avoid giving advice unless absolutely necessary. This is what the best therapists and friends did for me. Everyone was quick to give me advice, but rarely did it help. What is more useful is listening and understanding. This is healing balm. Of course, if asked, give advice. However, the truth is that their journey is their own, and whatever might have worked for you, or others, may not work for them. They need to go on their own journey. What you can do is help by being a listening ear, and trying to understand their pain. This is true empathy. And, if you take the time to truly understand what they are going through, then any advice you give will likely be more helpful.
Cheryl Sandburg said this so beautifully following the death of her husband when she said that “Real empathy … is sometimes not insisting that it will be okay but acknowledging that it is not.”
Suggestion on what not to say: “You should just do XXX, and you’ll feel better”
Suggestion what to say: “Help me understand how you’re feeling”
Know that suffering is not relative
It can’t be compared, so be slow to judge that the level of their pain is unwarranted for whatever reason. Once of the worst things you can do, is say “others are suffering more than you, get over yourself”. Their pain is real, and can’t be compared to others. Yes, it helps in having perspective, but telling them they shouldn’t be feeling they way they do isn’t helpful.
Suggestion on what not to say: “Stop thinking about yourself, others are suffering more than you”
Suggestion what to say: “What you are feeling is real, and I’m so sorry you are feeling this way”
Know when to seek professional help
Especially if you think there might be a mental illness that your friend is suffering from, make sure they seek professional help. There will be limits to what you can do as a friend, and that’s what professionals are for, especially if they have a disease. Mental illness is real and can be treated with medication and therapy. For me, getting on the right medication was one of the most helpful things I could do. When I did, it was like a cloud lifted and I could see clearly. Until this happened, my efforts to try and be ok were fruitless – just as trying to heal a broken leg with positive thought won’t work, so too will trying to get through depression.
Two additional pieces of advice on this;
Go along with them, both for support, and to make sure they are prioritising appointments. It is often the last thing you want to do when you’re in the midst of suffering!
Don’t use professional advice as a way of avoiding being there for them. While people need professional advice at times of suffering, they too need the love and support of friends and family
Suggestion on what not to say: “You are crazy and need professional help”
Suggestion what to say: “The way you are feeling is normal, and a professional could help support you at this time. Can I make an appointment for you?
Learn to identify the signs of suicide, and what to do if you see them
Common signs include a change in behaviour, the way they are talking, or mood. The more signs there are the greater the risk is.
Changes in behaviour could include; increased use of alcohol or drugs, Looking for a way to kill themselves, such as searching online for materials or means, acting recklessly, withdrawing from activities, isolating from family and friends, sleeping too much or too little, visiting or calling people to say goodbye or giving away prized possessions.
Changes in the way they are talking could include: having no reason to live, being a burden to others, feeling trapped or unbearable pain.
Changes in mood could include: depression, loss of interest, rage, irritability, humiliation and anxiety.
If you are worried someone is contemplating suicide, take this very seriously and never think they are just looking for attention. The level of the risk helps you to determine what action to take – from talking to them if it is a low risk, to taking them to the hospital if you think there is an immediate risk. Read up more on this here: http://www.helpguide.org/articles/suicide-prevention/suicide-prevention-helping-someone-who-is-suicidal.htm
Suggestion on what not to say: “Suicide is selfish, you are stronger/better than that”
Suggestion what to say: “I’m concerned you are considering suicide, is that true? Let me help you”
Take care of yourself
Loving someone in their time of suffering can be draining. It truly is one of the most selfless and sacrificial things you can do for someone, especially if you stay with them through it all. However, it’s important that you take care of yourself in order to be there for them. This includes being honest with them about what you can and can’t do for them, taking time out and making sure you are well rested – emotionally, spiritually and physically.
Suggestion on what not to say: “You’re such a burden. It’s always about you”
Suggestion what to say: “I know you’re hurting and want to be there for you. However, right now I need XXX. How can I help you find someone else to be there for you right now?”
Encourage them to undertake activities that bring them joy – and go with them
Again, this will be different for everyone but includes everything from eating well, exercise, worship, serving the community – whatever it is that might help them take their mind of their own suffering if just for a moment. While there is definitely a time to experience and work through their pain, if they are able to find even a moment of relief in undertaking a joyful activity, it can bring great healing. Again, do more than just suggest these things – be an active participant and go along with them. It’s much more fun doing these things with someone else. And, don’t be discouraged if they don’t help immediately – your effort and persistence will go a long way in itself!
Suggestion on what not to say: “Just go for a run and you’ll be ok!”
Suggestion what to say: “What brings you joy? Lets do that together!”
I owe my life to the people who have done these things for me over the last two years. Every day I am grateful for them, and have learned what real love looks like by the way they have loved me. Know that by loving someone like this is not only one of the best things you could do with your life, it could also save someone else’s life. And, it will strengthen relationships in your life, bringing much greater joy in the long run.