Lessons Learned in Suffering: How to Help

This post is written to help those who are led to enter into someone else’s hard place — a place where many of us want to help but are unsure how best to serve. Even though the call to walk with someone who is going through great suffering is easier said than done, answering that call is always compelled by the love of Christ and will move us into a deeper worship experience with the Lord.

For Christ’s love compels us… 2 Corinthians 5:14

As my children and I continue down the path of our own season of suffering, God has comforted us through the practical and emotional help and love of others who have answered God’s calling to walk with us. As they reach out and we respond, deeper relationships are being grown out of the pain we are going through.

Wanting to help but feeling scared

How many of us really feel equipped or qualified to enter the dark valley of grief with someone who is hurting? Maybe we fear not knowing what to say or we are fearful we might say something that will offend or hurt the person even more. Maybe death hits too close to home personally and it hurts being close to someone else experiencing the death of a loved one? Or possibly you want to help but feel you don’t want to intrude into someone’s life? Could it be your desire to reach out but you just don’t know what to do?

It’s true walking with someone who is going through intense grief is not easy and can actually be uncomfortable for some. But God’s intended ideal environment for care is the community of believers. We see this confirmed in Scripture through numerous “one-another” passages. These passages make it clear that we are called to enter into both the joy and the sorrow of another’s life (Galatians 6:2).

Helping – the basics

What I want to communicate here are six things to know as you serve someone during a very difficult time. Every situation is different so it is critical to rely on the Holy Spirit for guidance. If God burdens you to help a sufferer, be prepared to be challenged to personally sacrifice. Entering another’s pain is a high calling but if God is nudging you to help, He will provide grace and guidance as you depend on Him for what that looks like.

Do – just do something

The Gospel lived out includes doing, loving, giving, serving, and helping. When a person is hurting and we do nothing (we can at least pray) we fall miserably short of our calling to “one-another” each other. God calls us to just show up, to step out, to “do.”

In my grief, God has sent those who have just shown up. Consistently and selflessly. They “just do” instead of ask. Individuals who are not letting fear or lack of time invested in our relationship stop them from being used for God’s glory. Maybe they know that suffering people don’t expect perfection from anyone or that doing or saying the right thing is just pressure we put on ourselves. What matters is showing up.

Compassion and graciousness have many forms and can manifest as help in small and big ways. Notes, prayers, texts, calls, emails, gifts all display  persevering love (1 Corinthians 13:7). Random acts of kindness and generosity that recognizes a sufferer’s need and seeks to meet it (1 Corinthians 13:4) is what biblical love (action) is.

Be prepared – the cost

There is a cost to doing the work of being a friend to someone who is suffering. Nourishing healthy friendships is hard enough but walking with someone who is suffering means sacrificing; sacrificing expectations, time, comfort, schedules. This is not the time to be sensitive to any small offense. A grieving person is just trying to hold it together every hour of the day and their ability to function normally is greatly impeded. As Paul Tripp writes, a grieving person may seem normal on the outside but inside they are thinking and processing through a thick fog (jello), especially in the first six months after a death.

Grace, grace and more grace

There are highs and lows in suffering and the depths of the lows can be unfathomable. At times, a sufferer may not have the strength to respond to all the messages directed to them or they may inadvertently misspeak, misunderstand, forget, respond wrongly, or not respond at all.

But the truth is we all have had moments when we have misunderstood intentions, perceived another’s actions wrongly, spoken unhelpful words,  or given poor advice when someone was suffering. Just like Job’s friends in the Bible, misunderstandings and poor counsel, even when intentions are pure, does and will happen. For this reason, both the sufferer and the one walking with them need to give understanding and abundant grace.

Offer a specific help instead of a broad one

Many loving and caring people are genuinely sincere when they offer their help by saying, “Please call me if you need anything.” But almost always, the sufferer does not have the capacity to process such a vague offer. Although the comment is genuine it is too broad for a sufferer because the heavy burden of grief keeps them from being able to make decisions as they normally would.

Specifics make all the difference. It is best to seek to serve in specific ways in the areas you are gifted in. It is ok not to know what to do throughout a person’s grief journey as long as there is dependence on the Lord for guidance. God knows what the person needs and He will use your giftings to help fulfill those needs. The helper’s job is to prayerfully rely and respond to the Lord’s prompting as they lean into a life that is journeying through grief.

Be patient and persevere

Be there for the long haul. Most people will forget about the grieving person after a month or two. It is around the second or third month after a loved one dies when many who are struggling seek help. In my own current grief journey, I am at that point in time and have personally struggled with these same lies that attack and cause sinful insecurity. Right or wrong, a sense of abandonment can set in around this time which coincides with the time the caring community rightly and necessarily moves back into their own lives and the responsibilities of their own families.

Although this needs to happen, caring can continue and be manifested in a variety of new and different ways for a long time period. Consistent caring shows the person that although time is passing and the care they are receiving is evolving, they are not forgotten, they are loved, and they are important and cared for.

The beauty of community during suffering

In summary, it is the beauty of community that makes all the difference during suffering. We all learn in pain. I am learning that letting people help is just as important as their offering help and how best to communicate so it makes it easier for others to show my family love. I am also learning that  during suffering relationships will change, but it’s only temporary. I am learning every day to do grief better.

It is the beauty of community incarnating the love of Jesus Christ that creates contexts of grace which accomplishes His goal in the life of a sufferer.

In the next post we will present practical examples of helping the sufferer which will answer questions such as:

  1. What are things I can say that will be helpful?

  2. What things said and unsaid might be wounding or hurtful?

  3. Why and when are Christian platitudes not appropriate?

  4. What are some simple comfort phrases?

  5. How can I give biblical hope?

  6. What about giving advice or offering a cure?

  7. What are ways that help show a sufferer is not forgotten?

  8. Is it OK to care for them financially?

  9. How can I make sure I am not intruding?

About the author

Karen McMahon is passionate about helping others apply biblical truth to every situation in life. She is the Director of Discipleship Counseling at First Evangelical Free Church in Maplewood, Minnesota and a certified biblical counselor with the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC). She has a MA in Theology from the University of Northwestern – St. Paul and is completing her MA in Biblical Counseling from Faith Bible Seminary-Lafayette, Indiana. Karen loves Jesus Christ, her three children and their 12 year old yellow lab…and sushi too.

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