I know someone who has miscarried.
I know someone whose husband was killed in a car accident.
I know someone whose husband died of cancer.
I know someone who had breast cancer.
I know someone who is adjusting to being an adoptive mother.
I know someone who is struggling with her foster child and the foster care system.
I know someone who is struggling with recurring health issues.
I know someone who has lost her father.
I know someone who cannot see his children regularly.
I know someone whose child has health issues.
I know someone whose husband isn’t a believer.
I know someone whose husband has been unfaithful.
I have never been through any of these things. I can’t imagine the intricacies of these particular struggles. And yet, I want to show compassion. I want to be supportive. I want to be a friend.
And I don’t want to be annoying, or toss out clichés, or disappear, or disappoint, or cause further pain.
So how do we love people who are going through things that we haven’t ourselves been through?
First and foremost, we do not presume to know what it feels like. One of my pet peeves is getting unsolicited advice, let alone from someone who hasn’t walked in my loneliness shoes, or my formerly-abused shoes, or my codependent shoes, or my difficult-marriage shoes, or my divorced shoes, or my single-mom shoes, or my now-dating-as-a-forty-something shoes. Seriously, I cannot stand it. To the extent that I tend to recoil. I make a mental note to share less with that person. (Okay, possibly not all that healthy on my part, but that’s what I do.)
I liken it to this. Say I have a friend who just found out she has cancer. And say she has done her research and she has prayerfully chosen to try natural methods of healing over radiation and chemotherapy. Never in a million years would I put in my two cents because a) I’m not her, b) I do not know what she knows, c) I’m not a doctor, d) I’ve never had cancer, and, probably most importantly, e) I would trust her and her relationship with God to make the decisions and choices that are best for her.
So, if you have a friend who is going through something you’ve never gone through before, and I say this gently, do not give her advice UNLESS she has asked for it. (That’s an AlAnon thing and it’s one of the best things I’ve ever learned.)
Secondly, love her. Even if you don’t understand the pain. Even if you don’t agree with how she’s dealing with her pain. If you feelings-love her, then actions-love her, no matter what. Now, I’m not saying: if her husband has been unfaithful and she has shared with you that she intends to run him over with her car, you don’t have to offer to fill up her tank and go along for the ride and help dig the hole. But if, for instance, her husband has been unfaithful, and she decides to leave him (or decides to stay with him), love her through it. Even if it’s not what you would do. (Because odds are, you don’t actually know what you would do. You might think you know, but you have no idea really until it happens to you.)
Thirdly, ask her what she needs. And if she tells you, and if it’s in your power, do the thing.
Fourthly, pray for her. Pain makes you think differently. She needs a different kind of wisdom and clarity and discernment. Pray God protects her and leads her and reveals what she needs to know when she needs to know it and that she has the courage to make the hard decisions.
Fifthly, walk closely. Most people scatter when the storm comes through. Not out of evil intentions, but, I think, because they just don’t know what to say or do. Don’t be that guy. Be the one that moves in closer, that enters in. That says, as one of my best friends said to me a few years ago, “You can mess up everything and I’m not going anywhere.” Be that friend.
Lastly, understand if your friend needs to find other friends – not in place of you – but in addition to you, who get whatever the thing is she’s going through. She might join a support group or start hanging out with others who are walking in her shoes. It’s not because you lack something but it’s because she is going through something that is super specific and there is nothing like hearing “me too” or “I totally get it”.
So, the next time someone you love is going through something you just cannot comprehend, don’t bail. Don’t tell her how to live her life. Trust her. And love her. You can do this. And she will love you even more for walking her through.
As I have loved you, so you must love one another. –John 13:34b–
If my work has encouraged you and you’d like to partner with me as I reach out to help hurting women, click here for more information.
Excellent advice Elisabeth! I recently went through something very hard. I had several friends who had never experienced what I was experiencing. They were wonderful. They empathized with me, and didn’t give advice, unless I asked for it. They allowed me to be angry, when I am not usually angry. They listened, listened, listened. How blessed I am!
Elisabeth, such good stuff here. . I really struggled with the scattering of people that I thought were my friends during my divorce. I chose to think it was just that those people didn’t know what to do or say and not that it was a personal anything against me or them not agreeing with my decision to file, even if it might have been something like those last two things. That choice made it easier and allowed me to stay focused instead of going to a place of anger, which is oh so very easy.
Thank you for sharing. Your insight is such a gift.