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4 Ways to Help a Hurting Friend

4 Ways to Help a Hurting Friend

Editor’s note: This piece originally ran in 2019.

A couple of years ago my life was upended. You probably know the type of thing I’m referring to—a major loss, a game changer. The devastation uprooted me, so it was a grounding grace when friends came in softly and pulled up next to me. They couldn’t live my life for me or feel the load of it quite like I did, but for a moment I could sense their desire to be supportive and it felt like cool water on a burn.

A friend of mine, a woman in her late 60s, has allowed life’s experiences—both the terrible and the beautiful—to grow her heart large. She welcomes brokenness, aware of how love and suffering are inseparable.

While having coffee a short time into the unraveling chaos of my loss, this friend offered to hold hope for me when I couldn’t see it. I never realized that hope could be heavy, but I quickly discovered that there are times when maintaining old hopes can feel crushing.

So when I could only see destruction, she sat in my place and held the tension—saw and named the truth of the wreckage and still bravely held hope.

What was it about this friend and others like her that led me back to hope? How did we belong to each other in such a way that I was able to borrow their warmth until my own hope-fire sparked again?

Research highlights three key elements of what contributes to our experience of hope: the belief that what we desire is attainable, the belief that we can take action and make changes to realize the desired outcome and finally, the spiritual, social component to hope.

This last facet speaks to the importance of our sense of belonging and connectedness to more fully realize a sense of hope. It was this last element that had to come first for me after my loss.

I didn’t know what to desire or what was attainable anymore. My beliefs about the future had been scrambled.

As I’ve thought about the unique souls who stood with me when my hope was depleted, four common characteristics emerged. While there are numerous ways that we can hold hope for one another, nurturing the following four characteristics in our lives will make us healthier, safer companions for sufferers:

Have no timeline.

Respect hope’s process and rest in the knowledge that it can’t be pushed or manipulated. 
There will not come a day when sufferers are expected to be “over it” or pull themselves up from their bootstraps.

There is much that is undefined in loss, and that can be terrifying. Like C.S. Lewis wrote after losing his wife, “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear,” we must feel the unknown and the fear with sufferers, and stay. By grieving together indefinitely both hearts will break and grow bigger together for the investment.

Offer wholehearted presence.

Develop an awareness of what you can and cannot give. This will allow you to be more fully available in the spaces you uniquely occupy.

We can be truly present only when we have a clear understanding of our boundaries—we can’t give what we don’t have. Valuing our own sacred space and having a clear sense of our gifts and limitations allows us to freely give without strings.

This way, sufferers do not have to fear that their grief could overtake us or minimize their pain to make us more comfortable. When boundaries are clear, wholehearted investment is possible; we can travel through dark and deep together.

Have no agenda of your own.

Sit with what you know of God’s deep love and also the unknowns of suffering—both are true and yet so very hard to hold at the same time.

In this delicate space, we will feel the tension of both truths—God’s deep love and the tragic suffering of the world. There’s freedom for the one who offers agenda-less hope without having the burden of trying to explain the pain and for those who receive it as they wade through their suffering and come to a unique understanding of what it means in their story.

Trusting in the sufficiency of God and our own presence, creates a gracious humility that avoids advice-giving.

Embrace your status as a fellow traveler.

Remember your own times of deep need. Henry Nouwen—Catholic priest, professor and theologian— once said, “Your pain is the concrete way in which you participate in the pain of humanity.”

He believed that our unique pain can help us understand more about the human condition. It is through our experiences with stewarding our own hurts that we can come to better understand both the larger and smaller stories of humanity.

Our experiences with pain remind us that we are also in need of welcoming into the community of the suffering. And when we know this, we are able to welcome others more heartily into this beautiful broken community, as we collectively discover the courage it takes to hold both grief and hope together.

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