How to Care for Hurting People

When I was going through my divorce my family and others told me, “We don’t know what to say.” Have you ever felt like that?

You walk into the hospital room where a friend of yours is struggling to heal or live, and you’re tongue-tied and nervous. In the midst of a conversation someone tells you their spouse just died unexpectedly in her sleep, or that their spouse walked out on them.

What to do?

Perhaps you respond in one of these ways:

  • Quote an encouraging Scripture verse
  • Wait awkwardly and then try to change the topic to a safer one
  • Avoid further contact with the person because you don’t have time or the emotional bandwidth to “get into it” with them
  • Make jokes to “lighten things up”
  • Attempt to distract the person from their pain and grief in order to cheer them up
  • Give them a helpful book to read
  • Share the latest herbal strategy

I’ve done many if not all of those in my lifetime, and here’s the kicker: they are all appropriate . . . at the right time . . which is usually later.

What not to do:

  • Discuss your sister’s failed fight with cancer and how you are completely over it
  • Second guess the doctor’s diagnosis
  • Tell them that if they have enough faith everything will come out fine

I am not a doctor or a counselor, but here are a few things I have learned from other counselors and pastors, as well as from my own experiences.

1. Eye contact is critical. When they talk, no matter how tough the issue, look them in the eye. This translates into “I am listening” for them, which is most important.

2. Ask “How are you doing?” If they are talking about a friend of theirs, then ask how their friend is doing first, and follow that question by asking how they are doing. By asking these questions you are not signing up to fix their difficulty; you are letting them know you care by letting them share details.

3. Ask “Do you need anything?” Use a “you” question rather than something like “How can I help you,” because the latter obligates you follow through on things which may be completely out of your power to do.  You do not even know what they need yet, and “I” statements will take the focus off of them, where it should be.

4. Ask “Can I pray for you?” 90% of the time the answer will be “Yes.” Then ask God to walk through this difficult time with them, to bring healing in accordance with his will, to give wisdom to the doctors or those in control of the situation, to show his love and comfort to them and their family, and, if appropriate, to show this person how to support their friend/spouse who is hurting.

Time and again these steps have encouraged me and have helped me to encourage others. Anyone can do it, and everyone needs it.

They don’t need your success or horror story; they don’t want your pity; they don’t even really want you. They want your attention.

How are you going to care for a hurting person today?

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Excerpts from Flying for the Window

Today, for something a little different, I want to share two poems with you from the collection Flying for the Window, written by Charles Coté.  Charles lives in Rochester, NY, where he practices as a clinical social worker.  This collection is his first published collection, poems about his son Charlie, who died of a malignant melanoma in 2005 at the age of 18, right after graduating from high school and while the front man for a popular Rochester-area band, Fivestar Riot.

More importantly, Charlie, as I call him, is a dear friend and has been my guide and counselor for the past several years through my own challenging times.  Often we talked about poetry, and he coached me on my writing.  Flying for the Window is available on Amazon, or you can find the book on Charles’ blog.  I post these poems with his consent.

Here are two selections.

On the Car Radio

Every song a melody
you didn’t write,
played by those
I didn’t lose.
Take this moment
for instance:
wherever I go,
you aren’t here either.

I love this poem.  From the first reading it’s pungency and brevity hit me like a ton of bricks.  The turn at the end is magnificent.  This poem speaks so well of how I felt about my own loss.

Sitting in His Empty Room

Three years I watched his body
waste away, radiation burning the hair
off half his head until he shaved the rest.
So no one would gawk at the scar and ask
questions, he wore a knitted skull cap
and a drooping smile on the left side
after the surgeon removed his parotid gland.
Still, he lit up the room with that smile, and dark
brown eyes, eyes like no one else in the family.
Picture a high school gym filled with classmates,
a red carpet, his girlfriend holding his right arm,
black velvet crown on his glad head,
a poster child for the happy, raucous
cheers from the crowd.  Later that evening,
a show at Water Street Music Hall, his band
Fivestar Riot opening for Dysplastic Revulsion,
he’s still wearing the same crown, the homecoming
king’s cape, singing Better, his best song.
That was a year before he died.
See me now, sitting at the foot of his bed
the night he left us, asking, Are you scared?
No, he says, the knitted skull cap
tossed on the wheel chair, Just curious
about what’s next.

I am touched by the recollection of a parent, and I think about sitting on my boys’ bed and the kinds of answers they give to my questions – often very unexpected answers, like this one: “No, just curious about what’s next.”

How do these poems speak to you?