How do you respond when someone is in pain, when someone is suffering?
I think most of us feel inadequate to the task.
Most people haven’t been trained to respond to such situations.
And even those few of us who have been trained, still often feel that what we have to offer isn’t enough to truly help the other person.
Years ago, when I was working towards a Ph.D. in counseling psychology (never completed), I faced two such situations that I remember.
I want to share these stories with you as a way of talking through how we might respond to someone else’s pain.
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.
How Can You Respond to Someone’s Pain and Suffering?
What do you say to someone in that situation? How can anyone possibly help someone who’s dealing with so much, all at once?
I don’t know. I honestly don’t know. Even two decades later I’m not sure.
I generally 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 far 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.
How To Respond to Pain and Suffering
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. Forever.
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.
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.
I mostly kept silent. When I had something useful to say, I interjected.
But otherwise, I waited patiently, as he processed what he was going through.
Why Silence Matters
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 experience doesn’t matter.
Other times we try to comfort them, as I tried to do with my client who had lost his dog, his house, and his wife.
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 helpful 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 presence. The understanding that they’re not alone.
When we offer someone silence, we’re creating a sacred space.
A space in which they feel safe to face and their pain, face their suffering.
And we can be right by their side, silent, helping them heal and move forward.