Walking with Someone in Pain

As I was cleaning off a bookshelf recently, I came upon a basket full of cards that had poured in after my husband’s death. Later, as I sat down to read them, it sent me back to that time ten years ago when my life had turned upside down. Seeing these words of love warmed my heart as I remembered the many people who had served and encouraged us while Ron had cancer and after he was gone. I felt richly blessed.

We all know people who are going through times of pain and loss. Too often we stand by helplessly, not knowing what to do. Through our ordeal, I learned several ways in which a friend can be Jesus in the flesh to someone who’s suffering.

Offer your gifts. Many times the things we feel most comfortable doing, and even enjoy, are the best way to help. I appreciated a friend who told me, “I don’t cook, but I can clean.” People did yard work for us, researched medical questions, drove Ron to appointments, and entertained our four-year-old daughter. One friend provided a pre-chemo buzz cut. Women from our church made us a stunning quilt that still encourages me every time I look at it. An especially creative friend decorated Ron’s hospital room with a beach theme! (And yes, meals are nearly always welcome.) What special skills do you have that might meet a need?

Initiate. Many people are hesitant to ask for help. Tossing off an invitation to “call me if you need anything” is seldom helpful: the person may not remember the offer or even know what they need right then. Instead, ask, “Would you like me to. . . ?”

Give them a break. When someone is in the throes of a difficult situation, it’s easy for life to become crisis-centered. It can be invigorating to “get away” and direct the mind elsewhere. Invite your friend to join you for a movie or another distracting activity. One afternoon I got together with a friend in publishing and “talked shop”; it was so refreshing to focus on something that had been an important part of my pre-crisis life.

Just listen. People in pain need the freedom to talk openly about their feelings without being judged. Let them rant, cry, question—Psalms demonstrates that it’s OK to voice even our doubts and complaints against God. Resist the temptation to offer unsolicited advice or tell them about your Aunt Martha who went through a similar trial. Don’t be afraid to sit with them in silence—that may serve the person more than words.

Let the Holy Spirit lead. Only God knows a hurting person’s needs. Someone may seem fine on the outside but be screaming—or numb—on the inside. Listen to the Holy Spirit as you’re spending time with your friend or even sending a card: What does He want you to say, or not say? Is this the right time to share Scripture? Pray about how God wants you to be involved, or even if He does. You may not know how you can help, but God does.

Our cancer journey was a time of devastating sorrow, but also of great joy as we basked in the loving concern of friends. Some people we barely knew came alongside us in significant ways; some we felt closer to had minimal involvement. But God met our needs abundantly as His people followed His direction and cared for us. How might He want to use you?

Susan Nikaido is communications specialist with the Lifelong Laborers Office at Navigators headquarters. For 16 years she served as editor of Discipleship Journal magazine. Her late husband, Ron, ministered with Navigators Missions.