I had a close friend in high school that I had known since elementary days. The shocking news came one evening on the radio that his mother had been killed in a car accident. He was also in the car and had been badly injured. He didn’t return to school for a long time.
I didn’t get to see him for a few days after his return. He usually came by car, whereas I rode the bus; we didn’t have any classes together. I really wanted to see him, but I found myself seizing whenever I pictured us greeting for the first time. I had hurt for him while he was away, but I didn’t know how to approach him in his sad new reality.
I still remember the day I saw him: He was standing by his locker at the lower end of the busy central hallway in leg and arm casts and on crutches, his helpers attending him. When I spotted him and his entourage on my left, I thought to stop and draw near, but I kept walking instead. To this day that moment pains me, and I wish for it back.
Moving Beyond Our Own Fear
I think this scenario occurs more often than we can tell. Most of us know or have known people that have experienced great distress or tragedy. Our hearts bled for them and many prayers were offered on their behalf, especially with the understanding that their misfortune could have easily belonged to us. Yet fear overtook us when we felt to go and comfort them.
Some of us get it right because we do call and show our faces or lend a hand. Still, there are no easy textbook methods for dealing with people in pain, no tried-n-true icebreakers for tragedy. If you’re like me, you fear other’s emotions coming unhinged and your response. I’ve discovered that there is no pretty way to empathize with hurting people other than to wrap myself in their sackcloth and cover my head with their ashes.
But I’ve also learned that people do not require much to know that you’re there for them. In fact, in difficult times the little you do goes a long way, more so than when times are good. Truthfully, it’s not always that we can do much to help where help is most needed because visceral pain is deeply internal and personal and takes time to heal. People just want to know they’re not alone.
Learning to Empathize
When we don’t know how to respond, that is the way to respond: with honesty. I got a second chance at this a few years ago when a special mother of mine passed away. I was able to embrace her son and say, “I don’t know what to say, but I’m praying for you and I’m here if you need me.” In my communications studies we were taught about immediacy, being in the moment and present to the other. In my opinion, honesty and presence is how to deal with people in their distress.
Let me add a final suggestion. Make yourself do what you honestly feel despite your reservations. What you do for the other person, in all its glorious inadequacy, will mean far more to them than it will to you. You cannot disallow that it may be some part of what you say or do that might pull them through their despair.
More on this: What Job’s Friends Did Right