I’m thinking about you today, friend, typing these words as arrow prayers even as the fine doctors there in Boston cut the cancer out.
And you, beloved young mama, so weary after so many months, years even, watching your beloved son battle the darkness.
And you, too, matriarch to many, your smile hiding the pain that’s shifting your bones to a shape you hardly recognize.
And I’m thinking of the rest of us who feel helpless, hapless, wordless. We want to come alongside you in your pain but we don’t know what to say or do.
So today I’ve asked my friend Aubrey, no stranger to pain, to give us advice (or not) about giving advice. Aubrey tells her story in her new book on my nightstand, the reason I am staying up way too late reading, The Louder Song: Listening for Hope in the Midst of Lament. She asks the hard questions while steering clear of the easy answers. I want to buy this book for everyone who is battling grief, spiritual doubt, chronic pain or a difficult season of life, because Aubrey sees a pathway through the strain of suffering and can help all of us sing a louder song.
Advice (or Not): Advice about Advice
“At a women’s retreat, I open up for the first time about my illness. I talk about how I feel ashamed of it, how it redefines me. I speak about how I used to run and exercise but how I can’t do much of that any more, at least not in the same way. I tell these ladies that I know this disease didn’t attack the brain, but sometimes my brain just wants a break from having to process this new reality.
I don’t say this at the retreat, but I actually begin to feel grateful for pain’s unique counsel. I start to believe that life’s pains can surprisingly become gifts. Suffering shakes up everything, but eventually, it all must settle. With Jesus at our side, it all settles on hope.
A woman walks up to me after I finish speaking. She wears amber-colored bracelets on one arm, stacked all the way up to her elbow. “Can I offer you some advice?” she asks.
At this point in my illness, I receive a lot of unsolicited advice, and I’ve grown a little cynical. I confess that my thoughts are not full of gratitude. I think, Oh, great, here we go again. Let me guess. Is it turmeric? Is it Paleo? Is it the magical bracelets you’re wearing?
She continues, “When you feel like crap, order takeout. Don’t cook and don’t you dare feel guilty about it. If you can’t show up, don’t. If you need to take time off, take it. If you want to wear a hat because your hair is falling out, spend some money on a great hat. If you want to eat chocolate, keep chocolate stocked in the pantry. And if you can’t run because you experience too much pain, don’t run. Rest. Because, my dear, you have value; you are worthy of self-care.”
I compliment her bracelets and tell her it’s the best advice I’ve ever received.
If you’ve ever been in a hard season, you know that advice is a tricky thing. It’s well meant, of course. But in their attempt to be helpful, a lot of people can say stuff that’s, well … not. So if you’re walking with someone who’s going through some serious pain, here are some genuine ways you can help without giving advice.
Know that the grieving person will always be a grieving person—from now on. They know this, but sometimes we need to accept it, and sometimes we need to become less awkard about and around our loved one’s grief. Their grief might become less raw over the years. But grief remains with a person his or her whole life. God will use grief to shape them, and draw them closer to himself. You cannot fix or take away their pain.
But you can sit beside them as they cry or listen while they talk about their loss. You can allow them to scream and fall down crying and say unedited things without correcting them.
Grieving people are afraid that you will either forget their pain or forget the one they’ve lost. It helps if you remember anniversaries of deaths or birthdays or diagnoses. Send cards or a text on those days. Share memories you have of their loved ones. Remind them that you see them.
The person in pain doesn’t need you to help steer them to the bright side. In fact, they might need the opposite—validation. Assure them that what they are going through is a big deal—and can be a big deal for as long as they need it to be.
Err on the side of coming near. Err on the side of being made a fool. Err on the side of saying I’m sorry more than you should, even if you had nothing to do with their sorrow. Err on the side of letting your wife or husband or sister or friend grieve longer than you think he or she should. Be intentional to embrace their grief without fear. Ask open ended question: How is your grief today? How is your heart? What are you thinking about? And listen. Sometimes the grieving person needs space. But mostly they want to be met where they grieve. Practice the ministry of presence. This is, after all, what the hurting person wants—friends who are near, who minimize nothing, who lament with.
For people in chronic pain, it can feel like an imposition to ask for help. But they need help.
Here are some practical things to offer:
“I made dinner/grabbed a latte for you. It’s on your front porch.”
“I rented every version of Pride and Prejudice. Can I bring them over one night? You can pick your favorite Mr. Darcy. PS: It’s always Colin Firth.”
“I rented every Marvel movie for you. You can pick your favorite Avenger. PS: It’s always Thor.”
“Can I come over and pray for you/with you? I won’t linger.”
“Choose one of the following and I will do it for you today: (a) take your kids away from you for a couple of hours; (b) do your laundry at my house; or (c) take you for a night out.”
“I paid for a housecleaner to come to your house this week.”
You get the idea. Generally speaking, practical help and lots of compassion are all you need to offer. (And yes, it’s not lost on me that this is an advice list about not giving advice. I like to think of myself not as a hypocrite but as meta.)”
Copyright 2019 Aubrey Sampson: The Louder Song: Listening for Hope in the Midst of Lament. Learn more about Aubrey and the book at loudersong.com. You can also read a free chapter or get the book here.