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women talking holding hands

People often ask me what they should say to someone in the daily hurts that confront us, and especially when tragedy strikes. When someone we care about is hurting, we want to alleviate that pain, take away that suffering, to say something that will make it all better.

But, over the years of this work, I have found that words rarely make it all better. In fact, sometimes our words can bring more harm than good when someone is hurting. I think we all have experienced that–those who tell us “everything happens for a reason;” or “well, at least you have two more children;” or they begin to tell us about their hurtful experience rather than listen to our own. The truth is that often we want to say the right thing, the best thing, not only out of love for that person, but because it makes us feel better.

Rather than trying to cheer people up when they are hurting, though, the best support comes in simply acknowledging that things really are bad. It is more helpful to join with someone in their pain rather than attempting to get them “to look on the bright side.” This only discounts what someone is feeling.

I recall the sister of patient many years ago who joined in her sister’s pain very well. The patient was in her early 50’s, with late teenaged children still at home. She was so sad and angry that she was dying.

With the full weight of what this meant for her children, the tears began to flow. And they flowed for about 3 solid days. Her sister (who was visiting from out of state) simply witnessed and acknowledged the pain of her sister, our patient. She told me, “I make breakfast with her crying. We go to Target with her crying. We sit and talk with her crying. We watch TV with her crying. Sometimes we sit and hold hands with her crying. She just needs to do this, and it doesn’t bother me. Sometimes I cry, too, but mostly I’m just with her while she cries.”

Ah, what a wise and beautiful and helpful response!

That is the place where healing comes—when people can sit with us in our pain without trying to take it away. Parker Palmer, an author and teacher, says, “the human soul doesn’t want to be advised or fixed…it simply wants to be witnessed exactly as it is.” This woman was able to witness her sister’s pain without trying to take it away. Simply seeing her sister for who she was in that moment and accepting her, allowed our patient to feel that sadness, to let it flow through her, so she then had the energy to tend to some of her tasks.

Before we can offer that kind of gracious space to allow others to express feelings, we must first acknowledge and see our own pain. It is only in getting acquainted and more comfortable with our sorrows that we can join another in their sorrow. Walking with someone is the most healing thing we can offer. I am reminded of something I was told when I first began to work here: “In hospice care we don’t abide by the adage to ‘don’t just stand there, do something. We say, ‘don’t just do something, stand there.’” Standing with another human in pain is a beautiful gift.