How do I deal with suffering? While this question is perhaps most naturally asked by those who are enduring suffering, it is also a poignant question for friends and family who watch helplessly as loved ones suffer. Many of us know the feeling of standing by someone going through a difficult time and wishing we knew what to say or what to do. In what follows, I offer a few thoughts on how to approach others who are going through troubling times.
1. Don’t underestimate your presence. Several years ago I asked another pastor how he dealt with a particularly violent and tragic death in his congregation. From decades of accumulated wisdom he told me that in the weeks and years ahead the family wouldn’t remember a word he said, but they would never forget that he was with them. There is tremendous power in presence.
2. Don’t feel obligated to fill the silence. We are all different in how we work through suffering. Some like to talk it out, others like to sit quietly. If you find yourself sitting with someone who is quiet, they would probably appreciate you following suit. If you find yourself with someone who is doing a lot of talking, then let them talk and don’t feel you have to respond to everything. Encouraging them to talk all they want by actively listening will probably prove comforting to them. In either case, remember that the more you say, the greater the probability you may say something in a way you wish you hadn’t. And if you are worried that others in the room might think you aren’t doing what you should by talking more, bear in mind that it is better to be thought a fool and remain silent then to open your mouth and remove all doubt.
3. Do write a note of encouragement. You may be surprised to discover how encouraging a simple card or note can be to someone who is going through a difficult time. In line with what I’ve said above about talking, I would add that you don’t need to write a monumental missive. A simple card that is legibly signed with a few words of personal encouragement or Scripture will suffice. This is a form of encouragement that someone can choose to keep and return to time and again.
4. Do pray. True, sometimes when people say, “I’ll be praying for you” it is only intended to convey a sentiment of concern and care. But prayer does matter and in the providence of God’s sometimes mysterious purposes, it really does make a difference. Orare est laborare: prayer is the work.
Much more could, of course, be said, but I hope these few thoughts provide some guidance and encouragement as you seek to minister to those who are suffering.