When Friends Suffer

“It’s cancer, LJ.”

“They couldn’t find the heartbeat…”

“He wants a divorce. I thought we were just fighting, but he wants a divorce.”

“My dad had a heart attack last night. We were supposed to meet for lunch today.”

What do you do when a friend is suffering? What do you say? Are you paralyzed by the fear of doing or saying the wrong thing? Do you have cliche responses on standby? I think I used to fluctuate between doing nothing and saying unhelpful things.

“It’ll all work out.”

“It’s all a part of God’s plan.”

“Give me a call if you need anything.”

“I know how you feel.”

These were some of my go-to phrases. Writing them makes me cringe now. I wish I could go back to the moments when they escaped my mouth and snatch them out of the air before they reached my friends’ ears.

I’m no expert on suffering, and I’m definitely not an expert when it comes to the ‘right’ things to say. I do, however, have some experience in these areas. I have had friendships fizzle out because I was too paralyzed to be a supportive friend during times of suffering. I have also had the benefit of hearing firsthand accounts of relationships strained by suffering.

I worked as a cancer information specialist at the American Cancer Society before I became a momma (and throughout the first year of Big Brother’s life). While most of my interactions with callers began as basic questions or requests for assistance, many calls ended after a discussion about the caller’s relationship to cancer. I’d say that most of the people who called me were not patients- they were family members or friends of patients.

When told about the information available to friends and family, they often wanted to delve deeper. Many people wanted to know what they could do for their suffering loved one. Many of them wanted to know what NOT to do. So many of my callers were afraid of doing the wrong thing.

The truth is, seeing people suffer is hard. It’s often uncomfortable.

So, what about seeing people suffer when you’re a parent? Parenting has changed the way I observe suffering in several ways. At times I’m hypersensitive to the suffering of others, and at other times I’m completely unaware of the hurt going on around me. Sometimes (and I’m super ashamed of this) I see suffering and completely ignore it because I don’t have the time or energy to devote any attention to it.

My chief complaint as a new momma was that I felt like I didn’t have any friends. When I think back about that time, I realize that I didn’t have any friends because I wasn’t able to be a friend then. I felt like I had nothing to give to anyone other than my son. I felt like every ounce of energy that i had was going to keeping him alive. I’m sure a lot of us feel/felt that way when we first became parents.

Eventually, though, that feeling of emptiness wears off. Time passes and we realize that things have gotten a little easier. That newborn stage can be rough, but once it’s over the world seems to get a lot bigger again.

At the end of Big Brother’s newborn stage I went back to work. I went back to talking to people about suffering. I went back to sharing information with people who were watching their loved ones die. And it hit me in a totally new way.

I felt more, and I listened better. This translated into my real-life relationships too. I began to feel like I could actually contribute to friendships. I became more available to the people around me, and eventually I became a friend who people could talk to.

I learned about my friends’ suffering, and my cliche responses no longer seemed adequate. Suffering, after all, is personal. My responses needed to be personal too.

(The American cancer society has a wealth of information on this topic at cancer.org. They detail several helpful things to do and say when a friend is suffering with cancer! I highly recommend looking at their documents. What I’m about to share is what I’ve learned from personal experience. Some of it may resemble information in their documents, but my perspective is not intended to teach what the American cancer society shares with callers.)

So, here are some of the ways that I now respond to my friends’ suffering. These certainly don’t cover all situations, and I’m not trying to govern the way that you support your friends. These things have just been helpful to me!

1. Say something! I used to say nothing for fear of saying the wrong thing. I’ve found that friends feel much more supported when I choose to say something than when I choose to say nothing at all- even if I initially say the wrong thing. Don’t offer advice or try to change their perspective. Simply offer words of support. Like “oh man, that sounds so hard!”. Let them know that you have heard them. Let them know that you care.

2. Follow up! I used to say “call me if you need anything”, which was totally intended to be a message of support and willingness to help. What it can come across as, though, is a way to say “I’m making you responsible for my response to your pain”. It distances you from the situation while still giving you credit for being supportive. Now I choose to call or text to check on friends who have been suffering. I keep the responsibility of following up instead of being willing to help them if they ask for it. Sometimes I’ll offer to do specific tasks that may be difficult for the suffering person (grocery shop if they haven’t had time to). I generally keep my offers of assistance fairly small. I can’t offer to care for someone in their home right now. I have a family to take care of, and no one expects me to do more than I can.

3. Remember that it’s about them! This is a big one for me, because I tend to empathize too much when friends are suffering. I now try to remind myself that it’s possible to care deeply about a friend’s pain without wearing it as my own. Let your friend hurt. Don’t try to take it, because you can’t! In the same vein, I try not to use my friends suffering as an excuse to relive my past sufferings. I think it’s ok to share past experiences with friends who are suffering (it could be super helpful to them), but pay attention to their responses. Don’t expect your previous suffering to make their situation easier. Every situation is different. Don’t make their suffering about you.

4. Love them! Every person receives love differently. If you know what makes this friend feel loved, do it. For some it’s gifts. Others feel loved when you spend quality time with them. If you know what makes your friend feel loved, do it. This can serve as a reminder that their suffering isn’t pushing you away, and that you’re committed to being a present friend.

I’m still not good at being a supportive friend all of the time. Im often paralyzed, and I still say the wrong things sometimes. But, I am committed to being available to my friends who are suffering.

If you are trusted enough to be informed of a friends suffering, don’t run away from it. Being a supportive friend doesn’t have to be scary or overwhelming. When friends share, they’re not expecting you to fix anything, they probably just don’t want to feel alone.

Hopefully some of what I’ve learned will be helpful to someone else. Thanks for reading!! Feel free to comment if you have anything to add.

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