Since approximately one third of the American population deals with some level of chronic pain, most of us live alongside someone who's suffering. We want to help, but because not everyone suffers in the same way, not everyone can be helped in the same way.
One of the keys to helping your Chronically Pained friend is to understand first what sort of a sufferer he is. After that, you may have an easier time determining what (if any) role you may have in lightening the load.
If, for example, your pained friend is one of the Stoic Sufferers, you may find helping him almost impossible. For one thing, you may not even know that he experiences chronic pain. Even if you do, he's so quiet about it that you have no idea when help may be warranted. In an effort not to be a complainer, he's let the pendulum swing so far in the other direction that he keeps everything bottled inside until pain levels reach critical mass. That can be frustrating, especially if you have to deal with the fallout.
On the other hand, if your Chronically Pained friend is trapped in the Martyr Mentality, you may clearly understand her cause of pain, her level of suffering, and perhaps even the specific ways you can help. (You can't really miss it. It's all she talks about.) She has no trouble telling you her woes, and may even accept some tangible help; but when you offer a word of encouragement, you're emotionally stiff-armed, perhaps with an implication that there's no way you could ever understand. You may still offer help, but you feel conflicted because her attitude often dampens your feelings of compassion. Just being around her incites an internal battle. That's definitely frustrating.
I speak here in gross caricature, of course. Hardly anybody falls neatly into either of these two extremes, and there's a whole swath of grey in between. The point, though, is that before you can help the Chronically Pained, you must understand their most basic need; and before they can accept your help, they may need to understand a few things as well.
Although the Stoic Sufferers may feel that their silence is noble, it could be that their silence is actually a form of pride. Furthermore, by refusing to speak of their pain, they're actually robbing the people around them of seeing the full spectrum of God at work. We need to see the beauty of grace under pressure, and we can't do that if everyone around us keeps their struggles private. Additionally, Stoic Sufferers are shortchanging friends and family of the opportunity to serve, love, and support them.
The body of Christ is intended to minister to one another, and we can't do that if we're always keeping our needs locked down.
The Martyrs have a more obvious growth arc (at least, one that's more obvious to others. Whether or not they recognize it themselves is questionable). Martyrs must learn to balance their openness about pain with discernment: when to share, with whom, and how much. They must learn not to wield their pain like a battering ram. They must understand that Compassion Fatigue and Sympathy Fatigue (mentioned by my friend Joanne in a comment under a previous post) are both real processes with important implications for their loved ones.
The body of Christ is intended to minister to one another, and we can't do that if we're more focused on our own pain than on anything else.
(If it sounds as if I'm giving as much advice to the Chronically Pained as to anyone else, well... I sort of am. This process takes cooperation on both sides, and most of us have room for growth.)
The bottom line is this: if you're going to come alongside the Chronically Pained, remember: you can't block the pain, but you can lighten the load. Sometimes that's all that counts.
How to Lighten the Load:
1. Listen. Although "just listening" may feel small to you, it doesn't feel small to the person doing the talking. Listen. Listen, listen, listen. Once you've listened, you'll know what best to say to be an encouragement. It could be, however, that there's really nothing you can say, in the end. That's okay, too. As discussed in last week's post, a little listening goes a long way. A lot of listening goes further.
2. Understand. Simply understanding where your friend is along the spectrum can help you gain a little bit of perspective. This understanding might free you from a needless sense of guilt (in the case of the Martyr) or open your eyes to ways in which you could be more proactive about offering help and encouragement (in the case of the Stoic).
3. Ask. There may be nothing specific you can do, but asking how you can help demonstrates willingness and compassion. Be as specific as you can. "Is there anything I can do to help?" sounds trite and only half-sincere (even when it's not). "I'd like to come over for an hour this week and help you around the house. Would it help if you made a list of things I can do when I come?" That's specific and committed.
4. Pray. Pray, pray, pray. Don't just pray for your friends; pray with them. Pray not just for ease of suffering, but for patience, courage, fortitude, and grace.
Last, remember that just because a person keeps showing up and "doing life," that doesn't mean she's fine. Many of the Chronically Pained choose just to put their heads down and power through as long as they're physically able.
This sentiment was expressed perfectly a few weeks ago by my friend Marie. I'll leave you with her words:
[In the past], I've been the person saying, "Well, you must be fine because you're here," and while I know better now, at the time it came from a place of, "If I were in pain, I would not be here; you are here so you must not be in pain. Yay, I'm glad you're not in pain!"
Partly it's seizing on a perceived reason to celebrate (when someone you love is hurting all the time you start getting desperate for any sign of improvement in their situation) but mostly I just didn't realize at the time how often people Just Do Stuff even though they are suffering.
It's something that can be difficult to get your head around if you've never experienced it yourself. Relatively minor maladies have me canceling life until further notice, so it's easy for me to forget that my friends with chronic pain are, of necessity, stronger than that.
Posts like this are a helpful reminder.
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Bear one another's burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ. (Galatians 6:2)
For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: "Love your neighbor as yourself." (Galatians 5:14)