I meet a lot of people who are in pain.
They may be suffering from chronic physical pain. Or they may be going through some deep emotional, spiritual, or psychic disturbance. Whatever it is, it does not require a lot of imagination to perceive the turmoil surging through their lives.
It is tempting to try to avoid the pain in other peoples’ lives. Pain can be deeply threatening. It feels as if I might be overwhelmed. I do not know how to handle your pain; I am unsure how to respond.
I would like to fix it. But, my urgent need to fix your pain is just another form of denial. I want to put a smiling face on the world to ease your pain. But my denial is not really driven by my desire to ease your pain, as much as it is by my fear of facing the pain I see in your life.
What is the most helpful response to a person who is in pain? What does the person in pain really need from me?
It may be helpful to propose a specific practical way in which I might be helpful. An offer of help can be lovely and gracious. It is encouraging when someone suggests a specific way in which they would like to be supportive to the person in pain.
But there are times when it is impossible to find the appropriate expression of practical help. What can I do when there is little practically that can be done for the person in pain?
There is one thing I can always give to a person in pain.
Recently, I saw an episode of the TV program “Parenthood”. Zeek Braverman is the patriarch of the large unruly Braverman clan. After many years of marriage, he and his wife Camille have hit a bump the road on their marital journey.
Zeek is a tough, take-no-prisoners, retired Marine. Expressing his feelings or acknowledging the feelings of others has never been Zeek’s strength. But now, faced with a marital crisis, his familiar tools for coping with the ups and downs of daily life, are no longer adequate for navigating the deteriorating relationship with his wife. If his marriage is going to survive, Zeek must develop some new skills.
So, Zeek and Camille go for marriage counseling. And Zeek gets a new tool to add to his relationship tool box. Zeek’s counselor teaches him to stop the flow of aggressive words with which he usually responds in any tense or difficult situation and instead be still for a moment, look directly at his wife and say, “I hear you and I see you.”
Of course, much of the time it comes across as a corny cliche, a kind of relationship gimmick that can wear out quickly, a bit too glib to be real. But, on occasion you get the sense, looking at Zeek, that he really has opened his ears and his eyes, that he has truly taken in the fact that he is in the presence of another human being.
In these moments Zeek stops trying to control the situation. He stops trying to manipulate life; he gives up the need to fix things. He is just present to the reality of another person. But, most of all, in those moments when Zeek is authentically able to say to Camille, “I hear you and I see you”, he stops pushing away the pain, his own and hers, and allows it simply to be.
People in pain, do not need to be encouraged to wallow in their suffering. But they do need to be heard and to be seen. They need their pain to be acknowledged. They do not need anyone to try to fix the pain, make it better or take it away.
The person in pain needs to know that I am not afraid of their pain. I do not feel overwhelmed by their pain. The person in pain needs to see that I believe there is a dimension at work in life that is bigger and stronger than the suffering we experience.
People in pain simply need to know that their pain can be held with tenderness and compassion.
It is as easy as saying simply, “I am sorry” and allowing a quiet space to open. A touch on the arm, or a silent pause, may be all that is required. When a gentle space opens between two people, healing happens. The knots of inner turmoil loosen.
Without even trying, the person who merely holds the pain of the other, offers a beautiful gift of grace. The open welcoming heart is the best gift we have to offer.