When Hurting People Don't Need Words: Button One
When Hurting People Don’t Need Words: Part One
Editors note: Sheree is married to our Senior Pastor, Benny, and has been involved in caring for hurting people for over 40 years. She also has 7 kids who have needed care through many personal and family struggles. 4 years ago she decided to get some counseling training from CCEF (Christian Counseling and Education Foundation), where she and Benny have also received some personal counseling as individuals and as a couple. You can find helpful resources about this topic and many others at ccef.org.
I didn’t know her well but she asked to come over and talk about what had happened over the weekend. She and her husband of many years had gotten into another argument, only this time it ended with her calling 911. The details aren’t necessary to disclose but know this: the encounter left her so stunned and afraid that she needed help and protection.
Sitting there with this precious woman was hard. It was hard to see the confusion and shame and righteous anger and fear. Hard to see her hot tears and learn that this wasn’t the first time she felt the need to involve authorities to make her home feel safe. Hard to hear her wonder how the strife and anger and violence were impacting her children. Hard to manage my own fears and anger over a woman being treated so wrongly. So unjustly…by a man who should cherish and protect, not attack and accuse.
I asked a few questions and sought to listen. We cried together. She had already done what needed to be done right away. She and her children were not in imminent danger, protected by heavy steel bars for now. My mind raced with questions, anxieties and the desire to know the history of a marriage that started with such promise and was now dark and scary and violent. I wanted to say something, anything, that could help apply just a little salve to a heart pulsating with emotions that made me ache for the questions she was facing about an uncertain future.
But I’ve learned something in forty-some years of trying to love people well. Sometimes what comes to mind to say to a suffering person is just the wrong thing to say. Our urge to help can sometimes be a misguided effort to manage and quiet our own pain as we watch another suffer and ache and cry and storm heaven for some reason why this happened to them. Their pain produces pain in our hearts and we, like they, want it to go away.
- A friend is aching over losing her baby to miscarriage and a thought comes that sparks hope in our hearts: "I had a miscarriage or have friends who did and another baby came!" That will make all this pain go away once she sees God’s sovereign plan unfold. And so we say, “I’m so very sorry for you and will be praying that God will give you another baby.”
- A friend sits in stunned silence as he processes the sudden death of his father. His blank stare and glistening eyes yank compassion out of our hearts as our mind races to find words to add just a little comfort. “I can’t imagine how hard this is for you, Jack. I’m so grateful your dad was a believer and you will see him again one day.” The words sink into our own hearts and we feel just a little better.
- A daughter comes home with swollen eyes and a broken heart. He broke up with her…again. As a mixture of anger and relief wells up in our hearts we hurt for her, but hope this is the final blow to a toxic relationship we’ve warned her about many times. “Honey, you deserve better. Hopefully this convinces you that Dad and I were right about him.”
Over the past decade Benny and I have a 4-word phrase that has come to define our friendship with and ministry to others: we have learned the importance of sitting with the sufferer.
The first step in sitting with a sufferer is like getting the top button of a shirt right. If the first button actually gets put into the first hole all the buttons from there line up. If not, you get to the third or fourth button and realize something’s off and everything is crooked. One by one you have to unbutton them all and start over.
Sitting with a suffering friend begins with what I still have to work on. The first button in loving someone who is experiencing loss, grief, confusion, betrayal, anxiety, depression or heartache is realizing what they are feeling is affecting me. I love this person. I hate that they are in pain. I feel so bad for them. My own heart is aching and I feel the pit in my stomach intensifying. I know that what I’m feeling is nothing compared to what they’re feeling. I don’t like what I’m feeling and I want it to go away. Go away so I can focus on them. Go away so I will stop remembering how this situation right now reminds me of times I’ve felt overwhelmed and sad and fearful, too.
And so I speak. The silence would be deafening. It could make my friend see how clueless I am to help or make it seem like I'm not being affected by her darkness. But mostly it would leave me with the darkness growing in my heart and mind.
I speak words that helped me back then. Or words of hope and comfort. Words that came to mind that made the bad feeling inside me just now make a tiny bit of sense of their pain.
But when I said them it didn’t seem to make her feel better that another baby in the future would make her think, “Oh my! If that baby last year hadn’t died inside of me I would have this baby!” Didn’t seem to provide much comfort about seeing his dad’s grey and lifeless body in the hospital bed after a sudden heart attack snatched him off because in a few decades after he’s missed at wedding and graduations and holidays and annual vacations at the beach they will be reunited. Didn’t offer any perspective on how much better off she is without that loser boyfriend you’ve warned her about again and again.
Honestly, learning to sit with the pit that other’s suffering produces in my own gut has taken a long time to even detect, much less understand. I had no idea that the first reason why I hate seeing others in pain is because of the pain it brings to me. Pain that I want to relieve as quickly as possible…and so I talk. Talk about God’s faithfulness or future hope or how everything is going to get better.
As I sat with my hurting, confused friend that day on the couch I noticed something. When I felt the pit in my stomach growing I knew just what needed to happen. She and I needed to just sit together. To cry together. No words were going to make either of us feel better. But experiencing the raw anger and pain together did. And when she came back the next week we could begin to start talking.