Monday, April 14, 2008

How To Comfort the Suffering

I've learned a lot in the last few weeks about how to be compassionate to people who are suffering. There are a lot of things that I've done in the past, which I said or did in an effort to be compassionate, that I now realize were not.

If you want to be a better servant to people in suffering, check out this list. I borrowed it from Dr. John Mark Hicks, who just recently took up blogging again. These are very good guidelines for being there for someone who is hurting...

What can we do for someone who has lost a loved one to death? I lost my first wife (1980), father (1994) and son (2001) to death, and my second wife and I divorced in 2001. I share here based more on my experience than any expertise.

1. Have a healthy sense of inadequacy. The worst and most offensive thing to a sufferer is for someone to come with all the answers.

2. Be there and be silent. From a sufferer’s point of view, the most important thing is not what you say but your presence. Be present and be God’s instrument of comfort.

3. Listen. It’s difficult to listen to a sufferer, and the tendency is to try and change the subject. Take a cue from the sufferer. If they lead you into remembering their loved one, go with their lead. If they talk about something more superficial, talk about the topic they choose. Be willing to listen to questioning doubt. Job’s friends were unwilling to hear Job’s questioning and tried to stop him. What we do represents God for them. They will experience God’s listening through our ears.

4. Be willing to experience pain with the sufferer. We may have enough problems in our own lives that we often don’t want to experience the pain and hear about the problems of others, but a sufferer needs someone to listen, feel with them. Proverbs 25:2. When we are willing to sit with others in their feelings then they can also feel the empathy of God’s own presence.

5. Express your love without interpretive statements. Don’t say, “It’s all for the best,” or “God plucked a rose from his garden.” Never try to interpret why a person died or what God’s intent was—this is not only arrogant but doesn’t help the sufferer. Say something that you feel, such as “I feel awful about this. This is terrible.” Never tell a sufferer how they should feel, but you can tell them how you feel, that is, how you hurt with them and how awful you feel about the circumstances.

6. Do something. Don’t say, “If there’s anything, anything I can do, call me.” Why not? Because this places on the sufferer the responsibility to do something, to figure out something for the person to do for them and make a call. This is a time when the sufferer doesn’t need more burdens. Have you ever really been called by someone who is suffering after you told them this? Most likely, you’ve been called rarely, if ever. The sufferer may not want to inconvenience someone nor decide who to inconvenience. Statements like, “Call me if there’s anything I can do” only extend the suffering rather than helping. What needs done? In some cases, everything needs to be done. Do something for the sufferer that you perceive they need. Mow their lawn, take them some food, help them clean their house, change the oil in their car. Show up and do.

And this final point from another Hicks entry:

Don’t Pry. Don’t inquire, listen. We will tell you what we want to tell you. Keep the questions to a minimum. Focus on presence and listening. Keep your curiosity in check. Recognize that pushing for disclosure of details is more about you than it is about helping us. Hear whatever we are willing to tell, let us take the initiative in disclosure and never pursue your curiosity with us.

If you follow these guidelines, you will bless people immensely in their period of suffering. And they will always remember it. One of my mentors in ministry is wont to say, "Folks probably won't remember the sermon you preached last Sunday. But they will always remember that time that they were in the hospital & you were there." So true.

1 comment:

Katy said...

What a great post, Phil! Definitely helpful for people like me who never seem to find the right words in difficult situations! It's nice to know we don't have to have the answers, just be present & be willing to listen!