Someone confides in you about being violated. You try to keep a calm expression although your mind is in shock: “What do I say?!” You feel uncomfortable—awkward—and say the first “Christian” thing that comes to mind: “God never wastes a hurt.” You try to listen even though it’s painful, give them a quick hug, say “I love you!” and finally move away.
Your friend is left feeling empty, abandoned yet again. Although you said the words, she/he doesn’t feel “loved” at all. It was hard to gather up courage to tell you, but now, she/he just feels worse : “Maybe I shouldn’t share; maybe I am alone.”
Phew! Though you’re relieved to be walking away, you feel bad because you couldn’t help more. You want to but just don’t know how. It was a painful moment for both of you. The next time you see her/him, you just act like it never happened. She/He is in pain, but you’re at a loss for what to do.
Ever wish you were more equipped to help a hurting friend? I do! It’s hard to know how to comfort someone when he/she is suffering deep pain like divorce, miscarriage, a loved ones’ death, cancer, or sexual violation--especially if you’ve never experienced it.
Here are suggestions from someone who has been sexually abused; however, these tips can apply to people in many situations!
SIMPLY LISTEN : If you don’t know what to say to friends who are suffering, be honest and admit that, but listen. Show empathy in your facial expressions by mirroring their feelings. There is great wisdom in just listening when you don’t know what’s good to say. Be present with them as they share. Try to give them your full attention when they are sharing something vulnerable with you. There is powerful healing in giving someone the gift of being heard, seen, and known. Every human has a natural need to be known, especially those who have been put down, abused, ignored, and silenced.
DO NOT TRY TO REASON THEM OUT OF THEIR FEELINGS : “Talking sense” into people who are hurting is like telling them their feelings don’t matter or saying it’s their fault they can’t “think rightly.” This adds guilt and inferiority to their existing anguish. Pain shouts and demands to be felt; people who are in pain often need to work through the overwhelming emotions first by sharing them with God and others.
REFRAIN FROM GIVING ADVICE : Most of the time, people just want a listening ear; they are not asking you to “fix” them or looking for solutions. This can come later if they ask you.
DO NOT JUDGE or GOSSIP : If you are struggling with finding compassion and mercy for the person, ask the Lord to show you what he/she has been through. Put yourself as fully in their shoes as possible. People who have been abused naturally find trusting others difficult, so try to be someone trustworthy when they confide in you.
ENCOURAGE THEM : When people have been abused or neglected, they believe the lie that they are not important or valuable. Actively express your support, and show genuine care. Affirm their inner value and character as a person in addition to praising the things they do well. Most importantly, express how God loves them simply because they are His precious daughters and sons.
PRAY FOR THEIR HEALING : Ask them and God how you can pray for them and actually pray. Partnering with God in prayer is one of the most powerful ways you can support others.
HELP THEM FIND MORE SUPPORT : When they are ready, gently encourage your friend to find more support. However, take the initiative to regularly check how they’re doing even after they get professional help. There are many skilled counselors and support groups for all types of challenges such as depression, long-term caregiving, anger, divorce, and parenting children with a disability to name a few.
Perhaps something in your own history or circumstances makes it very difficult to be there for your friend. It’s okay if you simply cannot. If you genuinely care about them, express that, and be honest about your fears of not being able to give them the best help. Then, help them look for more support.
Please remember you are neither in control of nor responsible for your friend’s well-being. God already has a plan for their healing. You are simply there to support them during this process by being a consistently loving presence in their lives—accepting, encouraging, and praying for them. Thank you for blessing God’s heart.
Please print this Empathy Guide written by Viki Wong and edited by Michele Okimura, which includes things to say and not to say to those who are hurting: (please attach document here)
For more on healing, hope, and freedom by this author, click here: Hope & Freedom