I don’t know what to do!
I can clearly remember the time when someone I care for a great deal delivered the devastating news that they’d been diagnosed with cancer. I think that, for a moment, I left my body. I was in shock. But I knew in that moment that I wanted to respond in a way that met this person’s needs. I think that when someone shares something painful with us; we tend to respond to our own need. Our need to make them feel better because it is hard for us to see someone we love in pain. But I think that while we are trying to connect and be helpful, our response can create disconnection. So, how do we help those we love when they are in pain?
How do you respond to someone you love when they share something painful with you? Whether they are ill, lost their job, getting a divorce or even if they are just having a particularly bad day. The tendency is, because we love them, we want to say something that will make them feel better. We might say, “You are a strong person, you’ll get through this” and while that may be true, it does tend to close off further conversation and fails to meet the person’s needs. We are not acknowledging their fears, pain or whatever they are feeling. What happens next is that the person who is in pain or upset begins to feel not understood (or even misunderstood), and that they have to defend or explain what they are feeling. Ultimately your loved one may decide to keep their pain to themselves and the result is that you feel hurt because you really wanted to be there for your loved one.
Perhaps you have experienced a time when you were in pain and someone said something to you with the best of intentions, but you felt as if the person who cared about you didn’t understand what you were going through. Empathy is what one needs when they are in pain. And I do believe that even though the response that we give or receive is not a healing response, it does come from empathy because you do feel for them. You may simply feel lost about how to respond. Who has been taught how to give an empathetic response to those we love? We don’t know how to respond and we don’t know what to say to someone who is in pain. All we know is that our loved one feels bad and we feel helpless, although we don’t always recognize that it is helplessness that we are feeling. Think about how many times you have said or thought “I don’t know what to do”, that is helplessness.
Here are my suggestions as to what might be helpful: Validate and empathize! For example, if someone has shared with you that they have discovered they are ill or they have lost their job you might say, “I would imagine that you are very frightened right now” or you could even ask them “please share with me what you are going through” or “please share with me how this has affected you”. Recently I found an article that shared a tweet post by Robert Downey Jr. The story is that a parent reached out to him to tell him that her son had a bad day and to hear from “Ironman” would be helpful. Robert Downey Jr. responded (awesome, right!) with “Tell me everything”. I thought that was a perfect response! He was saying to this boy “I’m here for you and I want to know everything that you’ve been through”. Here is the thing; it takes work and practice to learn how to give a validating and empathetic response. But study it, and learn how to do it. It will deepen your connection in all of your important relationships.
The other thing that you can do is ask them what they need. Maybe they just want you to listen and after they feel you have listened to them they may seek reassurance. My initial belief was that empathy and validation was the only response that we should give when someone is in pain. BUT, remember that validation and empathy will make a person feel their emotions at a deeper level. Not everyone has the capacity to feel the depth of what it is that they are going through. For example, if someone has shared with you that they have cancer, you could validate them and say “you must be so frightened”. But maybe they want to come out of their fear and hear reassurance; maybe they need guidance; maybe they need suggestions, so ask them what they need. And if they say that they don’t know what they need, then simply be present with them where they are emotionally so they don’t feel derailed. They shouldn’t feel the need to defend or explain why they feel what they are feeling and there is nothing wrong with saying “I wish I understood better what you are going through but please know that I am here for you. And I will do my best to try to understand what you are going through.” Give comfort by being present, the best gift is you, your love and your care.
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