5 Can’t-Miss Lessons for Walking with People in Pain

As many of you know, this has been the hardest year of my life. I’ve lost count of the number of doctor’s visits we’ve had, but it’s well over 70. The battle with depression and discouragement has been just as real. Along the way, I’ve asked you for permission to share some of the things God is teaching me. But this post isn’t only about me–it’s about someone else who has walked in tremendous physical and emotional pain, and the things we’ve all been learning as we walk this road together. This one’s a bit longer than normal, but it comes from the gut. Thanks for letting us share some of the lessons we’ve learned . . .

(Photo by vajdic at sxc.hu)

(Photo by vajdic at sxc.hu)

It’s hard to walk with someone through times of tremendous pain. And tremendous pain is what my sister has experienced for 14 years. In 1999, she suffered a severe head injury. This led to too many problems to count–chronic, high-level pain . . . extreme fatigue . . . constant nausea and dizziness . . . loads of spinal problems . . . . Then, just as she was finally recovering, nearly 10 years later, disaster struck again. While on a work assignment in Peru, a bus she was riding got in a traffic accident. Faced again with spinal problems and a head injury, her body went into a fully reactive mode, and began to attack everything. She developed off-the-charts food allergies, and then the life-changing burden of Multiple Chemical Sensitivities. It was–and is–heart-breaking.

In the first years after her injury, she shared her world of pain with me by writing. I remember sitting at my desk in university, crying hot tears of anguish as I struggled to type a response. I remember walking the neighborhoods of NE Portland, yelling at God at the top of my lungs. The pain she has felt has been real and fresh. The questions we ask in those moments are raw and unfiltered. I was doing everything I could to understand what she was going through. She would say that I was one of the best at entering her pain with her. 

But I still I had no idea. 

And then it happened to me–to us. Last week marked the one-year anniversary of the hardest year of our lives. A year ago, Liz went to the doctor for pain in her back. Through a series of mistakes, she received a shot in her spine that started a cerebrospinal fluid leak, and turned our world upside down.  This led to too many problems to count–chronic, high-level pain . . . extreme fatigue . . . constant nausea and dizziness . . . loads of spinal problems . . . . In the meantime, Caleb and I have had our own problems. We now cannot eat dairy, soy, yeast, or gluten. We’re working to cut eggs, and Caleb is also allergic to rice. For the last 6 years, we, too, have walked the road of Multiple Chemical Sensitivities, and it has changed our lives.

But it hasn’t just changed our lives physically. It’s changed the way we understand pain. And it’s changing how we relate to those in pain. Here are 5 lessons we’re learning for walking with people in pain:

Offer more empathy than encouragement.

We often get two different responses to our pain. Some people offer trite encouragement. Of course, it’s not their goal to be trite, and I know this. I don’t hold it against them. But in their efforts to lift our spirits (“Well, it could be a lot worse. At least you don’t have . . .”), they actually make us feel very alone. They show that they don’t understand, that we can’t be honest, and that it’s time for the conversation to move on. Others, however, offer true empathy. We tell them about the food allergies we face, and they respond, “Oh my goodness! What do you eat?! I can’t imagine!” It’s amazing how nourishing this is to our soul. We can be honest, and we get a sense that they actually care. Interestingly, we also can bring some positive comments to the conversation. Because we can see that they understand, we’re free to hope. (Click here to read about the secret power of empathy). I’ve learned that real empathy is more encouraging than trite encouragement.

Have the courage to talk about their pain. (Don’t change the subject.) 

It’s amazing how many times I don’t talk to other people about their pain. There’s something about hardship that leaves us uncertain about what to say. Maybe we assume that everyone else is talking to them about it. Maybe we fear that bringing it up will remind them of their pain and make them feel even worse. But as I’ve walked a road of pain this last year, I’ve learned that the opposite is true. I find that I often do want to share about my pain, but I’m afraid to burden others. I’m afraid that I’ll make them uncomfortable, and they’ll change the subject. But when others ask real questions about how I’m doing, and listen to my whole answer, it reminds me that I’m not alone. I’ve learned that one of the biggest gifts I can offer someone is the freedom to talk about their struggle.

Do the hard work of entering into their isolation.

It’s not easy to do the hard work of entering into their isolation. In fact, people in deep and lasting pain often guard their pain and isolation very carefully. At the time they need people the most, they seem to push them away, or hold them at a distance. Why? Maybe they feel that they’re asking questions others won’t understand. Perhaps their pain has put them on the sidelines of life while everyone else keeps on living. They might fear opening up only to feel ignored. It feels too dangerous.

There is another reason that is hard to explain. I didn’t understand it until I lived it. It’s hard for people in ongoing pain to ask for help, because they’re always having to ask. It can feel humiliating. And sometimes, they simply don’t have the internal strength to sacrifice what feels like their last shred of dignity by once again having to beg someone to come to their rescue. And so, rather than risk another rejection, or another misguided response, they choose to stay in their world of isolation, secretly desperate for someone to enter their world. It’s not right, but it’s real.

Of course, we can’t meet all their needs. We can only offer what God gives us to offer. And we can offer what Jesus offered us–the willingness to enter their world, with all of its pain, questions, and confusion. I’ve learned that entering isolation with someone in pain is extremely hard work. I get through their walls of hurt and suspicion when I ask very careful questions, and listen for far longer than I’m comfortable. (Here are some thoughts about how to ask the right questions.)

Resist the urge to speak on God’s behalf. 

Some of the most foolish things I’ve said to hurting people have come when I try to help them. The reality is, people in great pain say strange things. They ask hard questions. They often wrestle with deep doubt. And sometimes, we feel the need to play Holy Spirit. With good intentions, we try to reach in and help them see the error of their ways. We try to offer them counsel. We try to fix their wrong thoughts, their wrong reactions, or their wrong theology. Like Job’s friends, we feel the need to interpret their pain in light of our understanding of God. And like Job’s friends, we’re usually wrong. In fact, it’s possible that they’re asking real, valid, and necessary questions that we’ve never been forced to ask, because we’ve not experienced what they’re experiencing. We’d all expect a survivor of the Holocaust to ask different questions than someone who has never experienced that level of pain. Similarly, a person in pain might ask questions that are simply beyond our experience. Perhaps we should expect to not have all the answers . . .

Of course, I’m not saying that we should never offer counsel or reflection. We should. But even Job’s friends sat silently for seven days (maybe that’s where we should start!). In this last year, I’ve received some key advice that has been hugely helpful in our journey. But I’ve only been able to receive it from those who have shown true empathy–those who have done the work to truly understand our journey, to listen, to grieve with us, and then–ever-so-carefully–offer some tidbits of wisdom or direction. I’ve learned that ongoing pain is far more complicated and difficult than I ever imagined, and that God doesn’t need me to speak for Him.

When possible, offer real help.

People in pain often also face financial loss (loss of wages and/or mounting medical expenses) or might be physically unable to do certain things. At times during this last year, our house has been an utter disaster! Cardboard boxes leftover from our move sat piled on the back patio. The trees and bushes in the backyard looked like they hadn’t been tended for years. And inside was worse. I couldn’t clean because of my severe reaction to all cleaning products (including most ‘natural’ solutions), and Liz couldn’t clean because of her spinal problems. We found ourselves so thankful for those who came and helped–and then came and helped again. Without judgment, they did laundry, cleaned bathrooms, vacuumed rugs, pruned trees, raked leaves, cooked meals . . . Reduced to merely surviving, we simply couldn’t have made it without their help. Others have generously helped with our mounting medical bills–a huge answer to prayer. Never before have we been so needy. Never before have we been so thankful for real, practical help. I’ve learned I can encourage people in ongoing pain by repeatedly offering real help at the most basic of levels.

As I was talking with my sister, offering my apologies, she had the kindness to mention a couple of things I’ve done right. She said that she often feels like I can understand her pain because of the visceral reactions I give. It’s not conscious, but it is intentional. Often, not knowing what to say, I simply finding myself responding with groans, with sighs, with exclamations of ‘oh my’ and ‘Ahh, I’m so sorry.” And it’s those types of responses that she finds most helpful. Not great theology. Not philosophical arguments. Not trite encouragement or well-intentioned advice. Just real emotion. Real empathy. Real listening.

The good news is, we’re all capable of offering that, aren’t we?

By the way–so many of you have offered these things to us. It’s only because we’ve experienced these things from you that I can write this post. From the bottom of our hearts–thank you! You’ll never know how much it means to have you walk with us in our pain. To our friends in Hungary, and our friends around the world: Thank you! Your care for us has been beyond measure, and we continue to experience God’s love through you. 

I’m sure there is much I’m missing here. What would you add? If you’ve walked through long-term pain, what helped, what didn’t? If you’re caring for someone in ongoing pain, what has worked for you?

  • You just put into words so many things that I know but have never expressed. Along with what you said, the people who actually show up and clean (instead of just offering and accepting your ‘no thanks’); the check that arrives in the mail from someone who says, “I think God told me to send this to you”; the lady who shows up with a casserole, drops it on the counter, hugs me and leaves—those are the people I really remember.and appreciate. The really sad part is, that so few of these people are Christians; most are non-believing friends.

    • Sheri, these are great additions. Yes! I completely agree with each of the things you’ve said. Thank you for sharing.

  • Kay Lynn

    Rob, this is very well done. Thanks. (But it was tough to read.) I appreciated the way you explained the hard work of asking questions and listening…. and the irony of isolation when a person most needs help. Thanks for sharing these tips so graciously, without making me feel like a totally foolish friend! 🙂

    The weird and ironic part, to me, is that a believer in pain can extend a special kindness to the outsider/friend. I know I’ve said foolish things to people I love — with good intentions — so I appreciate their merciful responses in spite of pain. Thanks again for the honest words.

    • Thanks, Kay Lynn, for your thoughtful response. I, too, have offered some very foolish ‘help’ to those in need. I apologized to my sister just this last week! Thanks for offering your reflections–I appreciate it.

  • Chris Thatcher

    Rob, These rock! Thanks for modeling these to me over the years. Especially number 2. It made me think about HOW to ask good questions that actually invite people to talk through pain. Pain strips us of dignity, makes us feel out of control, and robs us of relational connection . If God gives us the grace to recognize pain in others, we must first ask questions that: 1) Draw on insights from our personal experience without focusing on OUR story, AND 2) Draw on observations about what they say right before THEY change the subject. People in pain want to know they can trust you. They will often say small phrases of revelation to test you. This is where your insight about courage makes so much sense. Great thoughts Rob!!

    • Chris, these thoughts add so much to the conversation–thanks for offering them. I especially love your observation about how hurt people will change the subject, and they’re really testing us. Super important insight.

    • That is so powerful and true. I have discovered that when most people ask me “how are you doing?” they really just want to talk about how THEY are doing; and relate some war story about how they hurt/felt pain when they broke their leg or something else. Love what you said about how pain robs us of relational connection. totally accurate.

  • blslivkoff

    I’ve had chronic pain for about 4 years now (I’m 44). There have been so many losses (job, finances, independence, dignity, friends), but for me so many gains too -my relationship with Christ, a husband who married me knowing I was sick, support in prayer, finances, food, etc from people literally all over the world. I honestly wouldn’t change a thing because I’m so thankful for the work God has done. Thank you for this post. You helped me see why I shut people out many times and I think its ok that I do….I wish all those around me could read this and understand. Sometimes there are no answers to give, only comfort and unconditional love.

    • Wow, 4 years of chronic pain could feel like a lifetime! I’m so thankful that your experience has been a good one–that the body of Christ has rallied around you and cared for you. What an encouraging and inspiring testimony!

  • Kristy Williams

    Rob, thanks so much for insight. When it comes from people like you who have walked these valleys, it helps tremendously to hear advice and gentle help directly from your lips. I need this. Praying today.
    -Kristy Williams

    • Thanks Kristy. And we’re praying for Ukraine, as well.

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