In the middle of putting this series on suffering together, one of my close friends experienced a devastating loss. Despite the fact that I have walked the road of deep suffering and loss in my own life, and the fact that supporting people through suffering is a passion of mine, I felt surprisingly afraid. Afraid of showing up at the wrong time or saying the wrong thing. Afraid of the unknown expressions of grief I might encounter. Deeply caring about their suffering, but deeply afraid to move toward it. So I did the culturally appropriate thing—making a meal—and did the terrifyingly bold and countercultural thing—showing up without an invitation on their doorstep. And then I just sat with them. And it didn’t make me feel good about myself; in fact, it was hard. I didn’t know what to do, except to show up and communicate love.
So when I had the chance later that week to ask our Staff Care and Development team leader Alex for advice on how to care for those who are suffering, I did! I found his guidance grounding, helpful, and so true: true to my own experience of being helped by others in personal loss, and true to the difficult space of reaching out to my suffering friend. I trust it will be helpful for you as well, as you encounter opportunities to support those who are deeply hurting.
Watch the video.
Read through the conversation.
Q. In your work you have helped support a lot of people through tremendous suffering in their lives. It’s one thing to go through our own suffering. It’s a very different thing to be supportive and helpful for others—to offer real comfort. So I’m wondering if you could give us some guidance on how to walk with others who are suffering?
A. Yeah, I’d say three things.
The first thing is to have dealt with your own suffering. Those times when people are struggling with suffering—they don’t know what to say, or they’re anxious about what to do—sometimes the discomfort is really on us, not on them. And our inability to say anything for fear we’re going to say something wrong or mess up with them is because we haven’t done some of the hard work ourselves, for what do we believe about suffering, and how do we experience suffering. Or we feel guilty because we haven’t suffered as much as these people have. All of us have experienced difficulties. If we haven’t weathered those well for ourselves then sometimes it makes us really uncomfortable when other people are suffering around us. So watch the first two videos (part 1 and part 2) and grapple with your own suffering first.
The second thing is the one thing that Job’s friends did right: nothing. They didn’t offer advice. They didn’t give all these wonderful Bible verses, platitudes. They just sat with Job. They were just with him. And people tend to underestimate the power of that. We don’t need to look beyond ourselves: when we’ve had something really difficult happen to us, we want people to just be around us and be available. There is something that gets transmitted—I believe even in spiritual realms—when someone is physically present. When we don’t have to fix it or say something to make everything better—because there isn’t really anything we can say to make it better. It’s really just about the power of your presence. You show your love and concern, and even your honoring the gravity of the situation, by not trying to fix it... with some simple thing you saw on Facebook or something.
And the third thing is to not be afraid of their emotion. I think people get overwhelmed with other people who are just sobbing or angry with God or all these things that come up when you’re grappling with horrible things that have happened to you. It can be frightening for us to see people who are absolutely devastated and seem out of control. People have asked, “When would this be psychologically wrong, when would this be categorized as something that is unhealthy grieving?” And there really isn’t anything with the initial shock of it. You actually can only diagnose things after six weeks or two months or so of weird behavior. But we all get a bit weird when we encounter various sufferings and trials. So I think trying to not be afraid of that, and moving into it instead of being really freaked out by it, is another important way to support those suffering.
Ultimately we recognize that we aren’t the ones who are to fix it. It’s actually in spite of ourselves that God shows up and will do the work he needs to, if people are honestly struggling with the realities of their loss or their pain that they’ve experienced. So it’s just coming alongside people as they do that, being able to go to those scary places alongside of them, with them, without being afraid of them or where that might lead. And somehow, with lots of prayer, God shows up and does marvelous things that I could have never imagined or thought of. It’s exciting and a privilege to be able to be part of that process with people.
Alex Galloway and his wife Amy have been with Novo since 2003. They live in Malaga, Spain, where they run a hub for missionaries that provides counseling, training, leadership and transition coaching, and spiritual direction. Alex serves as the the director of Novo's Staff Care and Development team.