The trauma resulting from my near death, passing of my mother-in-law, mother, father, and unborn son was a real strain on our marriage. Michael and I had married just 6 months before the losses began, and I felt robbed of a normal honeymoon period. Making matters worse was our drastically differing coping styles: I was openly a wreck while he did not express as much angst. This difficulty was compounded by the fact that I was in more anguish than he was. Michael, unfortunately, simply did not know how to respond to me, even if I was his wife.
It is now nearing the 8th anniversary of the worst day of my life—that day on which my father was crushed by a flying empty tank on the highway, I went into cardiac arrest, and our unborn son died. While nothing can be done to remove the horrid memory of that day, I'm happy to report that this loneliness…this inability to speak comfort to one another, is no longer a problem for us. However, the road to truly "being there" for each other wasn't randomly stumbled upon. My husband had to literally be trained on what to say, and I had to learn to give him some grace when he just didn't get it.
As I travel and speak, it is not uncommon for hurting people to approach me after the event. It seems these folks fall into one of two groups: 1) those wounded by life, and 2) those wounded by their seemingly inability to handle the hardship of their hurting loved one. Now several years later, I finally see that I wasn't the only one in turmoil back then. Indeed, only a truly sick person can stomach the sight of the one they cherish in pain. Watching in horror and not knowing what to do can be almost as hard as living the nightmare.
So what can be done to help your hurting friend? Of first importance is hearing the struggling person's story. We can assist them by repeating back what they have said with new clarity. The main goal is to keep the conversation from shutting down with statements that imply "This about me." People say this when they communicate, "I already know how you feel because the same thing happened to me," or "You hurt me too!" You can keep the healing process going if you avoid telling the other person that they are wrong or stupid. Phrases like, "This isn't so bad." "All things happen for a reason," or "God must have a special plan for you and that's why this is happening," will leave the person feeling invalidated. Such statements have been known to deepen the sadness, as this is the natural rebellion against such ignorant displays of insensitivity. It's a vicious cycle: the hurting expresses pain→ someone responds without empathy, usually without meaning to→ the pain is increased for both parties, and round and round we go.
Instead of making matters worse, we can ask for more information and agree that what is occurring is, in fact, very difficult. We can point to the good—both in them and in the possibilities for a better day. Hope is always present, but we mustn't rush the processing of pain.
And so here is a basic map for you—a little acronym you can think of the next time you come across a friend in pain. Remember it when you attend your next funeral. Use it when a colleague shares her devastating news. Memorize it for times when your spouse comes home feeling angry or depleted.
M. is for More—say something that will encourage the other person to keep talking. A thoughtful question will usually do the trick. Just make sure your inquiries aren't loaded with your own opinions, and you will have made a huge stride in being there for the one you care about. In short, find a way to get them to open up about their story.
A. is for Agree—As I sat on a four hour flight to speak on this very topic, I found it a challenge to find common ground with the atheist sitting next to me; however, it wasn't that hard once I made a concerted effort to find general themes we could agree upon. No matter how crazy the idea might seem to you, there is some aspect of the story you can identify with. If nothing else, you can say, "Yep. That is a problem. I have no idea what needs to be done about that, but I'm glad you are thinking it over," or "I agree that should not have happened."
M. is for More—repeat trying to get more information.
A. is for Agree—find another aspect of their experience that you can validate.
G. is for Good—point to something good about how the hurting person is handling the situation or a possible positive outcome that might be yet to come. Try "This must be so hard. I can't believe how well you are coping," or "I don't understand why this happened, but I'm looking forward to seeing the good that is in your future." I liked it when a friend said to me, "I can only imagine how you feel. I know I don't know if I could make it through this, but you obviously are." After you have heard your loved one out and have validated their experience and feelings, you will have earned the right to speak hope into their situation. Try this before doing the leg work, and they'll likely tune you out. The hurting person simply MUST be heard.
I call this little map that leads to empathy and healing "MAMA G," and I'm going to guess that the Brost household isn't the only one in need of her wisdom. Perhaps you would like to make a bed for MAMA G and let her move in with you. She might not do the dishes but she will extinguish blazing tempers and heal old wounds.
One thing's for sure, whoever you are, wherever you've been, wherever you will go, as long as you walk this earth hard times will come and hard times will go. For some of us, it feels as though the hardship never lets up. And yet, if we offer love to others and do it in such a way that they can feel secure in our presence, we might just heal together.