A Simple 4-Step Equation for Helping a Friend in Pain

First published on Maria Shriver's website⎟440 Recommend This



Cancer survivor Emily McDowell made the national news this summer with a line of genuinely comforting “empathy” cards.

Her cards debunk those easy-to-say platitudes that can be pleasing on coffee mugs and wall calendars but sound hollow when life is in a million pieces, and you don’t know how to get from one day to the next: Everything happens for a reason; when a door closes, a window opens; we are never given more than we can bear....

Why do we resort to these tired phrases when friends are in desperate straits? Sometimes we don’t know what to say, and they do, seemingly, express acceptable hopes and beliefs. The idea of a new “window” opening or the possibility of reason behind apparent randomness offers the solace that we are part of a higher good, that our suffering will ultimately have a meaningful purpose.

There is a difference, however, between claiming such convictions for yourself and having them thrust upon you by a well-meaning friend.

I’m not sure which is worse: platitudes from a person attempting consolation or gloom and doom from a person who can see no possibility of it. A few months after my husband died, I rather desperately visited a former neighbor who had been widowed twice. She had, I assumed, come out well enough on the other side of grief at least once. I remembered her at the grocery store with her second husband. She was slightly stooped by then and wrinkled, but laughing like a schoolgirl as she added a head of lettuce to a basket with steaks and baking potatoes.

Years later, again widowed, she was thinner, almost birdlike in her fragility, and the wrinkles on her face had deepened to grooves. We sat stiffly in a family room that seemed more like a church parlor or museum—there was not an open book, stray pen, tissue, anything that hinted at the messiness of living. She stared at me sympathetically, fingering the sleeves of her cardigan. A grandfather clock ticked.

“It doesn’t get any better,” she said at length, as though stating a fact she regretted but felt obligated to divulge. “You learn to live with the pain.”

I left feeling even more desolate, wondering how this was possible.

But the simple fact of reaching out, no matter how awkwardly, is better than vanishing or remaining silent. I know a woman who told of being around town, heartbroken, after her son had been killed in a car accident. Friends and neighbors, she said, would sometimes cross the street to keep from having to speak to her. Of course these people gave her a wide berth for the same reason people say misguided, hurtful things: They're dumbstruck by the enormity of grief and unable in the moment to imagine being in those terrible shoes.

There are no right words for chance meetings on a curbside, if “right” means words that will take away grief. I’m sorry for what you’re going through is the truth, and nothing better can be said in the space of a few seconds or minutes.

What about when you’re in the same room, though, and you'll be there for a while? What do you say when you can hear the clock ticking or the see IV dripping? What do you say when you want to be comforting but the words aren’t there?

Here is an equation to follow:
Add the reality: I don’t know what it’s like to...

+ the situation: lose a child, have cancer, be in early dementia (or whatever makes your friend’s plight different from anything you may have experienced. My neighbor could have said “I don’t know what it’s like to be widowed so young.”)

+ what you would like to do: I wish I knew what to say.

+ what you can do: I can listen.

Then be quiet. Your friend will tell you, perhaps not directly, what she needs from you. She may not want to talk at all. She may just want your company to go grocery shopping. In grief or illness, the most mundane activities become hard.

Don’t pretend to have answers no one has. My husband took his own life. Hundreds of times I asked my mother, “How could he do this to me?” Hundreds of times, she replied simply, “I don’t know, honey,” until I stopped asking. I finally accepted in its incompleteness the only answer I had, will ever have: He lost himself; it wasn’t about me.

You don’t need answers. You only need to allow the questions. And if you ask your own, make certain they are coming from a place of compassion, not curiosity.

Variations of this equation will work many times. As you listen, you will become more adept at knowing what to say. Chances are, though, you’ll realize in your friend’s relief that listening is often enough.


Comment from Jim Duchene, October 15, 2105: When I first read this back in July I was moved beyond words. Here it is, months later, and I'm still touched by what you've written. "Words cannot express..." has never seemed more like a cliché. I'll have to let Patti Smith speak for me. She's a singer/songwriter/musician and this is from her recent book "M Train." She's writing about her husband who died early in their marriage. "Fred finally achieved his pilot's license but he couldn't afford to fly a plane. I wrote incessantly but published nothing. Through it all we held fast to the concept of the clock with no hands. Tasks were completed, sump pumps manned, sandbags piled, trees planted, shirts ironed, hems stitched, and yet we reserved the right to ignore the hands that kept on turning. Looking back, long after his death, our way of living seems a miracle, one that could only be achieved by the silent synchronization of the jewels and gears of the common mind." She writes later: "We want things we cannot have. We seek to reclaim a certain moment, sound, sensation. I want to hear my mother's voice. I want to see my children as children. Hands small, feet swift. Everything changes. Boy grown, father dead, daughter taller then me, weeping from a bad dream. Please stay forever, I say to the things I know. Don't go. Don't grow."

Reply from Mary, October 16, 2015: What a lovely comment. I can relate to that ache to hear someone's voice again, to experience the relationship you once had even for just a few minutes. As my own father sinks deeper and deeper into the losses of age, I think of recording his voice and wonder if it will comfort me when I can no longer talk with him. Thank you so much for writing, Jim. It warms my heart to know my blog meant something to you.