What Not to Say to the Suffering

Chaplains, ministers, and other healing professionals work so hard to uplift – body, mind, spirit.  With often deep and sincere motivation, we want to help people through their suffering. Sometimes, though, the wrong word can make things worse.

Why is there Suffering?

What were the first questions you asked, during religious studies?  We bet “why is there suffering?” was on your list. They were, for us.  Have you come to a satisfactory answer? If so, how long did it take you?  Now, consider that you are facing a trial, and are asking this question for the first time. How much would you appreciate someone’s pat answer, at that moment?  Young chaplains are asked that very question, and then admonished not to make things worse with what they say. Here is our big three of what NOT to say, what is okay to say, and why:

Top 3 Things Not to Say (… and why!)

  1. Theologizing – “God gives and takes away,”  “God has a plan” or “God wanted another lovely angel (or flower) – that’s why He took [your loved one].   –  Why not:  inspires anger at God.
  2. Minimizing –   “There there, it’s not really that bad,”  “There, there, stop crying. It  could be worse,”  “I know someone who has it a lot worse than you do.”   “Hey, everyone has a cross to bear.” – Why not: inspires alienation from you.
  3. Implying Sameness – “I went through the same exact thing,” “I know just how you are feeling.” – Why not: everyone experiences pain and loss differently.

Top 3 Things that are Okay to Do/Say (…and why!)

  1. Presence – “I’m here with you.”  and  “God can be here for you through this.”  This means staying in the room even when it’s difficult, and not offering a quick prayer as a way out the door. Why: it’s comforting.
  2. Concern – “How are you doing today?”  “How have you been [sleeping/eating?]”  Why: shows genuine interest, and may point out a problem that can be easily addressed.
  3. Honesty about Limitations of Knowledge – “I wish I had a good answer for that.”  (to the question of “why?”).  Why:  none of us knows the mind of God. Consider Job’s friends and all the theories they offered… also, you don’t risk alienating a person from their faith.

We have all experienced suffering and loss. It’s a part of the human experience. If it isn’t too painful, you might consider taking a mental walk back to the experience of your last big loss, and the people who helped you through the most. It’s likely that their presence was important, not their words.  You can’t remove the suffering of the world, but you can accompany those who suffer, and you can inspire with words that comfort and inspire hope.

Categories Health and Healing | Tags: | Posted on July 31, 2013

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