How do you respond when someone is in pain, when someone is suffering?
I think most of us feel inadequate to the task.
Most of us haven’t been trained to respond to such situations.
And those few of us who have been trained…we still often feel that what we have to offer isn’t enough to help the other person
Many years ago, when I was working towards a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology, I faced two such situations that I remember.
I want to share these stories with you as a way of showing how to respond to pain and suffering.
When Life Throws You a Bunch of Crap at Once
I don’t remember his name.
Or his face.
Or his voice.
Or his clothes.
Or really anything about him.
Except his story.
Even all these years later, I still remember his story.
When I met him, I was doing a psychology internship in a community mental health clinic in Wichita, Kansas.
He was assigned to me as a client.
I only saw him once.
After that one session, he didn’t return to therapy.
Perhaps I was too young to help him, only 25 years old at the time.
Perhaps no one could have helped him, given what he had been through.
Here’s what I remember, even two decades later.
In the six months prior to our session, the following three things happened to him:
- His dog died
- His wife left him
- His house burnt down
He was in pain, he was suffering.
And understandably so in my opinion.
I don’t remember exactly what happened during our session.
I’m sure I tried to be compassionate, tried to be empathetic.
And I probably asked lots of questions.
Those were things that I had been trained to do.
But I’m sure my responses were inadequate to his level of pain and suffering.
He didn’t need all of my questions.
He needed something else entirely.
How to Respond to Pain and Suffering???
What do you say to someone in that situation?
How can anyone possibly help a person who’s dealing with so much, all at once?
I believe that happiness is a choice.
But let’s be honest.
Some life circumstances are more conducive to happiness than others.
It’s easy to be an outsider and say that pain is part of life but that suffering is optional.
It’s easy to say that there are people who are worse off.
That what my client was going through wasn’t that bad.
That everyday there are people throughout the world suffering from circumstances far worse than what my client was experiencing.
It’s easy to say that no matter how bad life gets, all we need to do is look for things to be grateful for.
It’s easy to say those things when it’s not our life, when it’s not our pain, not our suffering.
But in the end, those are simply empty platitudes to someone who’s in pain.
When someone’s stuck in their story, trying to comfort them by offering empty platitudes doesn’t work.
And compassion only goes so far.
I Might Never See My Daughter Again
Now let me tell you about another client of mine, someone I saw a few months later.
This was a client I had seen several times before.
When he came in this particular day, he was distraught.
He had run into his ex-wife earlier in the day.
Following an argument between them, she threatened to cut him off from contact with their daughter.
He certainly believed that she could and would follow through on her threat.
Faced with the idea of never seeing his daughter again, he was in raw, emotional pain.
I was once again faced with a client who was suffering, who was upset, who was in deep pain.
If you were to hear a recording of that session, you’d notice something unusual.
There are lots of pauses in the conversation.
Lots of gaps, that sometimes go on for several minutes at a time.
Gaps with complete silence.
Unsure how to respond, and unable to fix or change the situation, I took a risk.
Instead of trying to respond to his pain, I just “let it be”.
I gave him space.
I gave him space to say what he needed to say, to experience what he needed to experience.
To process his thoughts, to process his feelings.
To be silent when he needed to be silent.
When I had something useful to say, I interjected.
But otherwise, I waited patiently, as he processed what he was going through – processed the idea of never seeing his daughter again.
I couldn’t change the situation.
Instead, I could offer him the most valuable thing I had: my presence.
A Better Way to Respond to Pain and Suffering
When someone is in emotional pain, we often want to rush in and rescue them.
We offer them some sort of solution, tell them how they should handle the situation.
But that’s not what they need at that moment.
And offering a solution can make the person feel unheard, make them feel that their emotions don’t matter.
Other times we try to comfort them, as I tried to do with the first client.
There’s nothing wrong with comforting someone per se.
But often we comfort others through a “poor you” perspective in which the other person is viewed as a helpless victim, rather than a potentially courageous hero of their own life story.
Often what someone in pain needs is just to be with another person.
And to hear their own voice, to talk through what they’re experiencing.
Sometimes that’s the best we can offer another person.
Our pure presence.
And the understanding that they’re not alone.
That we’re not scared of their pain and suffering.
That we can be a rock at their side.
Offering them a sacred space to face their pain and suffering.
And to heal and move forward when they’re ready to…