What Do You Say to Someone In Pain?
Have you ever had a friend or family member who was suffering? Perhaps they had just gone through a divorce? Perhaps they had lost a parent? Perhaps they were sick and in the hospital?
All of us have probably faced this situation many times. What do you say? How do you comfort them?
Some people knew to have a knack for knowing exactly what to say. But most of us struggle…
Our motives are pure. We want to be helpful. We want to be comforting. We want to be a good friend. But we don’t know the best way to do it.
It’s Not What You Think
The reason is that certain words are counter-productive. Sometimes we think our friend needs cheering up. We think they need a pep talk.
So we tell them everything will be fine. We say they will get through this. We are the coach rooting them on.
In truth, this was the way I used to be. As a young rabbi, I would go and visit my members in the hospital and try to cheer them up. I am a naturally upbeat guy, and giving a pep talk felt like the most comforting and useful thing to do.
What I Learned
It took a wise counselor and friend to steer me elsewhere. The answer to “What do you say” is not “cheer up!”
Sometimes trying to cheer someone up can be a way of avoiding dealing with the pain. A true friend—a true rabbi or pastor—does not try to paper over reality. He or she stands with you.
They acknowledge the pain. They give you permission to vent, to complain, to try. They are present.
One Key Sentence
One hospice doctor I know who works with dying patients and their family revealed to me one short sentence he has found most comfort: “I love you and I’m here.”
His words echo those of a great rabbi cited in the Talmud. He said, “One who visits the sick causes them to live.”
He did not mean we bring the dead the back to life. Rather, we give them permission to live. We do not ask the sick to be someone they are not. We do not ask them to put on a mask of cheer.
We acknowledge that even as they are sick, they are still living, breathing human beings worthy of respect and dignity.
A Dying Friend
Sometimes comforting the sick helps us live us as well. It gives us a deeper sense of meaning and purpose. A fellow rabbi once told me the story of a man who had a fatal illness and was in the hospital.
After he had been there about a week the man’s wife called their rabbi and told him the man’s best friend had not visited. It was not a matter of distance. The man’s best friend was a doctor who worked in the same hospital.
The rabbi called the best friend and asked why he had not visited. His answer? He was terrified. He knew his friend’s illness was fatal. He knew he would break down and cry in pain if he were to visit him. He was afraid his tears would make his best friend even more despondent.
The rabbi persuaded him to go, telling him it was okay to express his pain. His friend needed him. So he went. And he kept going back, sometimes visiting his friend twice a day, until he died.
He later thanked the rabbi for urging him to go, telling him he could not have lived with himself had he not overcome his fear.
It’s not easy to be a good friend. It’s not easy to be there with loved ones through painful times.
We want to solve the problem. We want to heal the illness. We want to stop the pain. But sometimes the most important thing we can do is to show up. To show up and say, “I love you, and I’m here.”