Watching a loved one struggle with painful situations can make you feel helpless. As much as you might want to, you can’t fix their problems. So, what can you do? How can you help?
The answer lies in the simple truth that adults who are hurting are not so different from children who are hurting. When children come crying after skinning their knee, you might listen attentively, attend lovingly to their boo-boo, and smile as you encourage them to go back out to play. With adults, the vocabulary is more advanced and their hurts more complicated, but the process of helping them through their pain is essentially the same. Here’s a breakdown of the ways to help:
Acknowledge and empathize with their pain: Connecting with people and feeling their hurt with them as they express it says that you care. And feeling cared about is a fundamental need.
Sometimes people push away a friend’s painful feelings because they hurt. And so instead of allowing themselves to experience empathy, they work hard to make the person feel better. These feelings and efforts come from caring, but the message that’s often received is that they don’t accept their friend’s pain – and so they are not accepting an important part of their friend’s experience. Rather than feeling helped by this approach, the hurting friend often senses that they are not wanted as they are and so they need to hide their pain.
Listen to their story: When someone is in pain, they often need to tell their story as they try to make sense of what’s hurting them. They might need to tell it again and again as they process their situation at different levels and from different perspectives. Support them as they do this.
But keep in mind that sometimes people get stuck going in circles, burrowing a deep emotional hole for themselves. If you see this happening, it is okay to point this out and suggest a change.
Offer a distraction: There are many ways that you can distract someone who seems to be stuck in their pain. You can simply change topics, giving them a mental break. You might suggest that the two of you (or a group of you) do something fun together. They might not be able to fully enjoy themselves, but breaking out of their rut can still be helpful. You might also encourage them to stay busy with meaningful, or previously enjoyable, activities. By keeping moving even when they don’t feel like it, there is the possibility of them gaining emotional traction. (Keep in mind, though, that it is still important to balance the distraction with allowing them to share their upset.)
Offer practical help if you can: After being there emotionally for them and letting them know you care about their pain, you might gently suggest solutions to their problems. This must be carefully timed and you’ll first want to check that they actually want your help. Too often, when people are struggling, they are offered solutions when what they really want is emotional support. If you are really worried about their emotional state, suggesting that they seek professional therapy can be the best way to help them.
Whatever you do might feel far from enough, leaving you with a sense of helplessness. But the most helpful action you can take is often to offer yourself as a fellow traveler, who is willing to walk with your friend through painful times. Be assured that your companionship, when offered with an open heart, can help bring about powerful healing.