Therefore encourage one another and build each other up. 1 Thessalonians 5:11
Look after orphans and widows in their distress. James 1:27
I was 26 the year my husband was diagnosed with incurable cancer. We were shocked, terrified, and far from most of our family and friends. Immediately, while it seemed everyone wanted to help, it became obvious that many felt powerless to do so. Some showed up regularly and insisted on helping with this or that; others simply faded from involvement in our lives. We regularly heard "let us know if we can do anything" or "call me if I can help." It was always appreciated, of course, although in my heart I knew I would never pick up the phone and actually ask for help. In the chaos of those days, I wouldn’t have known what to ask anyway.
When someone we care about goes through a tough time - a serious illness, relationship difficulties, loss of a job, divorce, the death of a loved one - it’s normal to feel some awkwardness, discomfort and apprehension. We often think: What can I do? What should I say? What if I just make things worse? Maybe I should just stay away… Haven’t we all felt that sense of powerless, being at a loss for words or actions when someone we love is in pain? Sometimes, unfortunately, for lack of better options, we opt to do nothing.
So how do we change that? Consider these handful of ideas, each based on actions taken by a handful of my personal heroes who braved fear and awkwardness and boldly encouraged me in my worst days.
What to say or do when you don’t know what to say or do:
Show empathy, and do it simply. A hug and a simple "I’m so sorry," or "Praying for you and love you!" made a real difference for me. Don’t compare to others’ struggles or minimize their pain. (Avoid: "It could be worse… time heals all wounds… it’s all part of a bigger plan so don’t worry…you wouldn’t believe what happened to… it’s not that bad…" or anything else that suggests that what they’re feeling is wrong. It’s OK to grieve.)
Offer specific help, and let them say yes or no. Instead of a general let-me-know-if-I-can-help offer, be specific. It can be as simple as making a few phone calls on her behalf or running an errand or two. Why not offer to keep the kids for a few hours while she rests? Go by and fold some laundry for her. Walk the dog. Bring over a hot meal for the family or some easy-to-microwave frozen meals for later. (Whatever you offer, be OK with her answer. If she declines your help, that’s OK. Let the decision be hers.)
Support; don’t fix. A phone call, text message, a simple note or card with a few encouraging words can mean so much. It can completely turn a dark day around, in fact. ("Thinking of you and praying for you!" are often enough.) Resist the urge to "fix" the situation for them (e.g. "You know what you need to do is…"); let God handle the "fixing" part.
Be present and willing to listen. Just be there. Wow, doesn’t that sound simple? Let them know you’re around and you’re still part of their life. Above all, listen. If they want to talk about it, listen and hear what they say. If they want to be silent, be willing to stay with them in the quiet. Still don’t fix! Be willing to say, "This stinks, and I’m so sorry you’re going through it," and stop there.
We all endure hard times; it’s a fact. And we’ll all witness suffering by those we care about. Christ himself told us, "I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world." (John 16:33) He is our greatest comfort during times of struggle, and He equips us to help others in their sorrow as well.
So, let’s commit to help and encourage those who are struggling! The impact of the encouragers who lifted me during my tough times had a true and lasting effect on me. I may still remember the sting of those tough times many years ago, but the pain is diminished by the memory of those who encouraged me.
That’s the most amazing thing about bravely encouraging those around us - the lasting effect of doing so. Encouragement is truly contagious, often leading the one being encouraged to share it with others again and again.