Unhelpful responses to suffering

I was a teenager when my grandfather was in the hospital for the last months of his life, struggling with emphysema, never quite able to catch his breath. His eyes were darting around, never comfortable (like anyone who can’t breathe). I kept asking him if he needed anything and he would look at me, shaking his head slightly, obviously irritated.

Finally, I asked if he just wanted me to sit quietly with him. He smiled and nodded, as though I’d come across the secret he’d been wanting me to know. A sense of relief overtook me. It was as though my anxiety had been taking some of his breath away. And I can still remember just looking at him. It was as though I was beginning to see him – his desperation, his loneliness, his heart. And I began to be aware of how much God really loved him and was so near.

How we respond to suffering can be quite unhelpful, as I’ve learned the hard way…
Here are some of the worst things we can say to others:

“God only gives us what we can handle, so He must’ve known you were a strong person”
“The Lord gives us grace to handle whatever comes our way”
“I know exactly how you feel”
“I know somebody who went through something like what you’re going through” (followed by sharing someone else’s long story)
“God must have needed them in heaven” or “God must have needed another angel”
“It must have been the Lord’s will” which implies He desired this to happen.
Again, none of these is helpful.
Our sincere desire to help, mixed with the need to alleviate our own discomfort produces responses like this. We mistakenly think correct information will remove suffering.
Like if we could only “download our file” into someone else’s grief, their “operating system” would be greatly improved. People don’t need downloads or forwards, they need someone to be with them.
Think of the most quoted Psalm, the one most people pick in their time of loss. “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want…. Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil, for You help me understand all the reasons why I’m here.” No! It is “for You are WITH me.”
The Lord my Shepherd, Jehovah Rohi in Hebrew. What a beautiful picture of His tender care when we like vulnerable sheep are in desperate need.
We need to experience Him being “with us” so we can “be with” others. We need a friend who sticks closer than a brother.
The most helpful response to other’s suffering is just what we need – “I’m so sorry” without trying to fix people. Healing comes from the Good Shepherd. Just reading the Scripture out loud to another without trying to explain it (it is amazing how the Holy Spirit can bring comfort through His Word).
The depth of love in a relationship can sometimes be seen in what is unsaid, savoring closeness without being invasive, asking questions, listening, being un-rushed and tuned in.
In the next few posts I’m going to keep looking at the issue of suffering…

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