How to NOT to Help the Hurting

We can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world. ~ C.S. Lewis

We’re often at a loss when it comes to coming along side someone who is hurting. In this post, and the next, I’ll share a few suggestions. Sometimes it’s helpful to look at what comes naturally that doesn’t help before moving on to some ideas that might be more useful. Here’s a partial list of things not to do if we want to encourage a person who’s experiencing emotional or physical pain.

  • Don’t view pain as a teaching moment.

Be sensitive and compassionate in your use of Bible verses and exhortations. We are very hard of hearing when we’re suffering. Leave the megaphone to God.

  • NEVER say: I know how you feel

Of course you don’t. Each person’s pain is unique.

When you’re hurting, I have no idea how you’re feeling no matter how similar I may think our experiences are because I’m not you.

It’s tempting (and often preached) to try to understand how someone else is feeling by walking a mile in their shoes; putting yourself in their place etc… In other words, I should try to understand how you’re feeling by thinking about me. But I’m not you!

While we may have gone through similar situations, every other experience that has led you to this moment has shaped you into who you are and how you experience emotional or physical pain.

In our eagerness to show empathy, we often share our story, inadvertently changing the focus of the conversation from the other person to ourselves.

  • Toss the cliché’s

Time heals all wounds. Time isn’t magical.

What doesn’t kill you makes you strongerBlatantly untrue. What doesn’t kill you will change you but it may or may not make you stronger.

Other’s have it so much worse. Comparing pain is minimizing.

You need to be strong. Why? For whom? What does that even mean?

Take care of yourself. Don’t tell a hurting person what they need to do when they’re already doing all they can to hang on.

Your loved one wouldn’t want you to be sad. Completely irrelevant (and may or may not be true). This moment is about the hurting person, not someone else.

I’m sorry for your loss. This isn’t all bad, but the word loss is problematic and once again, minimizing. Try just I’m so sorry (leaving off the loss). It’s genuine and doesn’t sound like you picked it up on Law and Order. 

In the next post I’ll share a few thoughts on ways to help and encourage someone who is hurting.

Author: Debbie

A former counselor and public speaker, I'm grateful for many, many things - God's grace most of all!

26 thoughts on “How to NOT to Help the Hurting”

  1. Time actually heals. This doesn’t mean that somebody will have less pain or no pain at all. As the time passes, our pain gets diluted in all other upcoming events. Well, and there is time when one can look back and realize that day was not the end of the world. There are people who only can live with pain, that’s how they have structured their life. There are people who go ahead regardless of any pain. I am a believer in our own internal power and I know that we can tolerate much more than we thought and we can find much more than we imagined there was. We simply need to be brave enough to face whatever comes along, not hide, not pretend, not give up, but have the courage to say “I know I’m not that strong, but I can overcome this, I can do it”. I’d say there’s often too much talk and too less doing. Too much wasted time in discussing everything. Just get up and do whatever you decided to without whining, complaining, looking for excuses, looking for somebody or something to blame. So on. I find that there’s very often no genuine desire to do something because it’s easier to just cry and expect the entire planet to cry with you. It also depends on what one assumes is difficult, intolerable, painful and scary.

    1. Inese –
      Thank you for adding your very thoughtful comments here.
      I think we are on different lines of the same page. 😀
      Time (in my mind) isn’t magical.
      Time simply passes.
      But as you said – what we do within that span of time makes an immense difference!

  2. I am preaching on “Blessed are you those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” next week. I’m thinking of dong some drama snippets with one person expressing a sad/difficult/depressing situation and another “nice Christian friend” trotting out one or other of the clichés you warn us against.
    I’ll let you know how it goes. 🙂

    1. Bravo,Ian!
      ‘Back in the day’ when I was a professional speaker/trainer we used role-plays all the time.
      We usually did what comes naturally first – and then re-did the interaction, using whatever skill we were teaching.
      We can nod and agree and take copious notes but in the moment: conflict, gossip, grief, fear, bullying etc… we tend to fall back on what we’ve done in the past, even if it hasn’t been particularly effective.
      When you role-play a scenario, it engages people emotionally and tends to bring their most likly response to the surface.
      I surely wish I could be there!:D
      I’d love to hear the outcome!

      1. Sorry, I didn’t get back to you. I din’t use your scenarios, but they inspired different ones., which seemed to work very well both for participants and observers. We used the music of Les Miserables and I shared some of the incredible stories of grace to which Victor Hugo introduces us.
        Thanks Debbie

      2. Ian –
        I would very much have loved to have been there to watch and listen and learn.
        I love Les Miserables. I find it to be unparallelled as a story of grace and forgiveness and redemption.
        I love Bring Him Home and I’m especially fond of the Priest’s Prayer. So very moving.
        I don’t suppose you have a video you could send?

  3. I used to wish that people who didn’t know what to say, would simply say they didn’t know what to say, instead of saying something insensitive. I believe in validating, and then offering a hug and an ear or shoulder.

    1. Lori –
      You know, I’ve gotten to the point where I do say that. I simply have no words. The greatest difficulty for me is in living away from most all of the people who share their struggles/pain with me.
      It’s challenging on the phone and harder yet on paper (or email) to be an attentive listener.
      Non-verbals are our primary compassion conductors.
      I think your approach is very kind.

  4. Thank you so much for helping me / us with this, gracious one! I just told someone I love to ‘take care of yourself’ last night. ARGH! haha! I will keep learning to do more listening and loving instead of talking.
    love and prayers!!

    1. Dear Debbie –
      Without a doubt, the source matters. I have no doubt that when you told someone to take care of themselves, they felt the tender concern behind your words.
      I, too, need to learn the lesson you highlighted – listening and loving instead of talking! Thank you for your openness. It encourages me to be open.

  5. This is good–and I confess I don’t always get it right, but I’m more than willing to keep learning. Could you maybe add this to the list of what not to say (before I pull all my remaining hair out): “Let Go and Let God”? It’s not that there isn’t some good/truth in it–but it’s become so trite and empty, and I’ve heard it twice in the past 2 weeks. When your heart is deeply involved, there is very little letting go. God bless y’all BIG–love, sis Caddo (cranky)

    1. Oh Caddo –
      I’d completely forgotten that one.
      You’re RIGHT!
      I used to hear that a lot… Let go and Let God.I didn’t realize it was still circulating. :p
      There’s something about that one that’s unsettling to me. There seems to be a subtle implication that if I don’t “let go” God can’t or won’t act.
      As though His grace were dependent on my full perfect and positive participation.
      Maybe I’ll write a post and start a collection of unhealthy, unhelpful sayings?
      You’ve highlighted the hurt our words can cause. Thank you for being willing to to share your whole-hearted struggles.

  6. Aaah, but we SO have to teach, don’t we. What if I just love you and hug you and you don’t “get” the message?
    If only we could trust our silence more than we trust our words. Let me get out of the way so that God can do his own healing.
    Bless you Debbie. A much needed word of grace, as always.

    1. Oh Ian, you do make me smile!
      Yes, we do SO love to teach!

      “If only we could trust our silence more than we trust our words. Let me get out of the way so that God can do his own healing.”

      That sums it all up beautifully and you didn’t even need 300 words – only 28!
      Thank you for sharing your compassionate and wise thoughts.

  7. Excellent advice for coming along side someone who is hurting. Sometimes I find it comforting to friends who are hurting not to say anything. SometimesI just a hug speaks volumes. Sometimes I just hug them and hold them for a few seconds. It’s surprising to me how comforting that is to church folks (the body of Christ you know) who are hurting. Sometimes they will just say thank you and walk away. Sometimes they’ll start speaking. Sometimes they won’t say anything. But the silence keeps the focus on them to do or say what they want to do or say. I’m just there. This reminds me of 2 Corinthians 1:3-4, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, 4who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.”
    Great post. Excellent advice. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Hello Steven!
      I don’t know what I was thinking when I posted the what NOT to do post before the what TO do post?
      I’ll touch on touching in the next post. 😀
      And I love your wisdom:
      “But the silence keeps the focus on them to do or say what they want to do or say. I’m just there.”
      That’s perfect! Really.
      Thank you so much for reading and adding such quality to this short reminder.

      1. Debbie,
        Thank you for such sage advice to help those who are hurting. We certainly have enough of them within reach of our voice and touch.

  8. All I can say is perfect, period, end of story. (I suppose I could have said “perfect” and ended it there) … OY!
    I’m so glad I took the opportunity to clear my head; settle down a bit; and read. Your insights are so well thought-out. The one that struck me especially was “take care of yourself”. It still does. To me it is the ultimate “washing of hands”.

    “Look, I’m busy, will ya ‘take care of yourself'”. When mom would say it when I was in the throes of bulimia (sticking terrible things down my throat) all I could think was, “Damn, you’re NEVER going to have to be mom, are you?” For some reason it made me want to hurt myself: It’s what I knew. It is HOW I took care of myself. Hurting myself is what I knew for many many years: It was comforting.

    So, anyway, “time didn’t heal my wounds”. It did change them. Thank goodness!

    Love the post. BTW, i finally passed the “level” i’ve been stewing over. I’m with you; no cheating. No lollipops or big, ball thingies!

    Love you. Mel

    1. Oh Mel –
      You always add another insight.
      While I haven’t liked being told “take care of yourself” the context was usually couched in criticism (i.e. You’re spending too much time at the hospital, You’re not sleeping enough etc…).
      I hadn’t thought of the phrase being used as a brush-off, but I can clearly see how you experienced it in such a different and painful way.
      Which is, once again, the point.
      We’re uniquely knit together and even the same sentence lands differently for each of us.
      Thank you for sharing your insights and yourself!

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