This post is part of a series for the witness to grief. If you’re supporting a friend or family member in pain, be sure to check in each Wednesday for a new post.
My article on how to help a grieving friend in the Huffington Post a couple of weeks ago had a huge reception. The last time I checked, it was shared nearly 1000 times, and had just under 5000 “likes.” Clearly, there are a lot of people who truly, deeply want to be of help to those they love. And there are a lot of people in pain wishing they could tell you exactly what they need. They just don’t have the energy or the resources to help you help them. That’s when those ground rules for helping a friend come in handy.
Watching someone in pain is horrible. Knowing there is absolutely nothing you can do to ease their pain, having to stand by and just watch is excruciating. I understand why it’s easier sometimes to just repeat a platitude like “he completed his work here,” or even – “it will get better.” At least you feel like you tried – you offered something.
The truth is, those things we say out of the desire to say something are often more hurtful than helpful. And that’s not what you intend.
What’s really going on in these times when you find yourself spitting out a platitude you’re not even sure you mean?
Pain. Your pain. The searing, splitting pain of feeling helpless. There is likely a deep part of you that knows you can’t fix this, that knows the one you love cannot be truly comforted. And it hurts.
In the months after Matt died, I remember moments of seeing how much pain my friends and family were in. Fleeting little moments of seeing the pain they were in for me. They were heartbroken. And whatever was left of my heart broke to see that, too.
The reality here is that pain is hard. Life is unpredictable and terrible and beautiful. There are things that don’t get healed. There are pains too big to be contained or soothed. And that includes the pain of seeing the ones you love suffer. The work here, as you companion and support someone in pain, is to make yourself available – to allow the heartbreak of helplessness into you. It’s horrible. And it’s necessary.
As you sit with your own pain without trying to change it or escape it, it softens some. It becomes easier to be with. You increase your heart’s capacity to witness and bear pain. I know full well that there is nothing easy about doing this. Opening your heart to pain is a crazy, radical act. It goes against what we’re taught, and what our culture expects.
You can’t keep the ones you love from suffering. You can’t keep yourself from suffering. There are some pains that can’t be fixed. The only response left is to open to them. Feeling your helplessness instead of acting from it helps those you love, and it helps you too. What you offer, in your willingness to withstand your own helplessness, is truly love.
And love is the thing that lasts.
How about you? How have you managed your own pain and helplessness watching someone you love in pain?