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A Friend’s Guide to Ongoing Pain

The other day, conversation turned to infertility, and a good friend of mine said "Sometimes I just don't know what to say to make you feel better." I love her honesty, and it got me thinking about what I've learned over periods of ongoing pain.  I've learned not only from infertility, but also sickness, career issues, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, longer-than-hoped-for singleness and a slew of other things. Here are some things I've learned from friends who have loved me well through these times. 

The other day, conversation turned to infertility, and a good friend of mine said "Sometimes I just don't know what to say to make you feel better." I love her honesty, and it got me thinking about what I've learned over periods of ongoing pain.  I've learned not only from infertility, but also sickness, career issues, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, longer-than-hoped-for singleness and a slew of other things. Here are some things I've learned from friends who have loved me well through these times. 

1. Pray for your hurting friend.

I know it sounds cliche, but it's the most powerful thing you can do. I'm not talking about an occasional, "God, please bless Beth. Amen," either. I'm talking about daily, intense, detailed prayer. Prayer about the results they want, but also about the effect the situation has on their relationships, about their deepening faith, and most of all, about God's will in their life. In the midst of trials, sometimes your friend needs a break from praying about her situation. Whether she's waiting for her soulmate, she's in the hospital or she's in career crisis, praying constantly for her wants can turn into whining and self-centeredness. She needs people to stand in the gap and pray when she needs a break. Pray big things and small thing. Pray for her consistently, and pray with her, too. Hearing someone earnestly pray for you has a healing effect.

2. Avoid empty promises "from God".

Regular readers know how I feel about this one. Please don't "reassure" your friend with promises God never made. "God will send you a husband," "God will heal your father," or worst of all "God will do it as soon as you ___."  Please don't put words in God's mouth–it just sets your friend up to feel disappointed and betrayed if that's not God's will for her. I know you're just trying to encourage her by telling her the dream you had last night. Perhaps the image of her holding an egg was prophetic, but eventually she'll find out that she's pregnant anyway (I guarantee she monitors these things). Perhaps it was just a reminder to pray for her, or perhaps it was your subconscious reminding you that you two are going to breakfast together next week.

3. It's okay if you don't know how she feels.

She's probably glad you haven't had to live through the pain she's experienced. Even if you've gone through a similar experience, remember that everyone's different and therefore has unique pain. Comparing your experience is even worse ("I know how you feel–it took us 4 months to conceive!" is not as comforting to me as you meant it, and I have no idea what you're trying to accomplish when you tell me, "I was so fertile I got pregnant whenever my husband looked at me."). However, if you've ever had pain in your life, you probably can empathize to some extent, and you can definitely care for your friend through her trials. I've never had my appendix out, but I can still bring you flowers or deliver dinner to your family when you have your emergency appendectomy.

4. Avoid giving unsolicited advice.

With ongoing problems, it's likely that your friend has read all the books, researched the alternatives, and paid well-educated and highly experienced specialists lots of money for their expertise. Unless you're one of those experts or you've been through it yourself, you probably don't know more than she does. Even then, you may not know all her background information or what she's tried in the past.  If she does ask for your opinion, of course, feel free to offer it, but even then, don't assume it will be taken.

5. Listen.

You think you're tired of hearing about it? Just think how tired she must be of talking about it–and living it. True, it's not as much fun to discuss as some subjects, but just remember how much you talked about your wedding, or your pregnancy, or the trip to Italy you're about to take. We talk about the things we're living. At times, she may feel like she's going crazy or like she's drowning in it or things will always be like this, and talking it out may be her release valve. (Of course, if that's all she can talk about or if you're worried about her emotional health or safety, encourage her to see professional help.) Similarly, your unemployed friend can probably talk about your exciting new job for short doses, but don't expect her to sit through every little detail and all the fabulous emotions.

6. Prepare for the unpredictable.

We all have strong days, and days we're a little fragile. What bothers me today may not impact me at all tomorrow. This is a journey, so your newly-widowed friend may not even know that the bridal shower will devastate her until she in the middle of it and fight-or-flight panic kicks in.

7. Give her room to grieve.

One of my dear friends called me to let me know she was pregnant before she made a public announcement. It was one of the best things she could have done. We had a conversation short enough that I could totally focus on how happy I was for her, then after we hung up, I was alone to cry over my own refreshed pain. When the public announcements came, I was back to pure joy for her and didn't have the embarrassment of looking like a crazy dramatic girl who can't be happy for her friends. Please realize that your friend's mixed emotion is not a lack of joy for you–it actually has very little to do with you. Someone who just lost a loved one may not be able to visit you in the hospital, no matter how much she loves you. Your single friend may need a little distance from the wedding planning, so don't feel betrayed when she's not as involved as you always dreamed she'd be. But…

8. Include her.

Let her determine her own limits. Don't walk on eggshells, tell everyone your news except her, assume she doesn't want to come to the Christmas party, change the subject as soon as she walks up. Let her decide if she wants to help with the shower, and if so, which chores would be easiest on her heart (buying baby decorations might not work, but fixing the food may allow her to show her love AND give her an excuse to leave the room if the heartache of a failed adoption attempt becomes too much.) During painful times, people often feel alone. Your friend may feel like no one understands, or wants to hear about her problems. She may feel like she's living in an alternate reality, where the world keeps spinning, but she's not a part of it. Including her, inviting her over, chatting about shoes and TV shows and new recipes reconnects her to the world.

9. Recognize God in all of it.

As hard as they are, periods of heartache can be times of tremendous spiritual growth. We were not made to avoid all hardship. We were made to run into the arms of our Father during those times. I know it's hard to watch our loved ones struggle, but those are the times we are rooted deeply in God, and get to know him best. Keeping God in the midst of the conversation helps this process. Job learned that guilt-producing friends aren't helpful. However, good friends can be reality checks. A dear friend and I often check in with each other during struggles, saying things like "I'm believing lies, but I can't remember what's true." Coming from a Christ-centered point of view helps bring truth to those lies, light to darkness and peace to chaos.

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Laura Singleton

Laura Singleton’s passion is the transformation that happens when women get access to God’s Word and God’s Word gets access to women. She was twenty-five when her life was turned upside down by an encounter with Jesus Christ. With an insatiable thirst for scripture and theology, she soon headed to Dallas Theological Seminary to learn more about Jesus, and left with a Th.M. with an emphasis in Media Arts. She, along with two friends from DTS, travel the nation filming the independent documentary Looking for God in America. She loves speaking and teaching and is the author of Insight for Living Ministry’s Meeting God in Familiar Places and hundreds of ads, which pay the bills. Her big strong hubby Paul is a former combat medic, which is handy since Laura’s almost died twice already. She loves photography, travel and her two pugs.

6 Comments

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      Laura Singleton

      You’re not alone!

      I've done most of the hurtful things, and not done most of the helpful things, too! Until we've been there or someone lets us know, they're not intuitive. That said, you've never done them to me =)

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    Sharifa Stevens

    Thanks, Laura.
    I can’t tell

    Thanks, Laura.

    I can't tell you how much I appreciate this post, as someone who has received – and given – unsolicited advice. These are really GOOD ways to encourage us to bear one another's burdens.

    (And your numbering system is pretty clever…LOL!)

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    • Avatar

      Laura Singleton

      About the numbers…

      OK, I don't have a good excuse for my numbering system. Hubby pointed that out last night. Oops! LOL.

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      • Avatar

        Sue Bohlin

        Wonky numbering system?

        You must have fixed it. . . or else my dear friend Sharifa has an eye for "things unseen"??

        At any rate, "home run" is a great assessment of your post, Laura. EXCELLENT!!!

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