I reached to shake his hand. Instead, he shrank back and pulled away. Confused, I looked at his face and then his hand. That’s when I saw the bandages.
“Burns,” he told me. While attending the funeral of a relative and caring for the needs of the extended family, a pot of boiling oil on the stove had exploded, splattering his face and chest as well as the hand that held the handle.
“It’s been two weeks,” he said. “It’s much better now. You should have seen it when it happened.”
From my angle, his wounds still looked painful and raw. I could see the darkening red blisters and blackened scabs covering face, neck, arms. But the most severe burns were covered by bandages on his hand and up into his nose. I could only imagine the pain this man endured.
He’d heard me speak earlier that day, knew about my own burns and scars. In a room of over a thousand church and ministry leaders, I’d shared my undone story through years of extreme head and neck cancer and treatment, and the wrestling and refining of my faith in the process. Although the source of our suffering was different, the shared experience of it connected us. We understood each other, fellow members of this same hard family of pain.
“People say stupid things,” he smiled. But the smile didn’t quite reach his eyes. “Like the ones who tell me ‘It could’ve been so much worse’ and ‘Why didn’t you . . . ?’ And ‘You’re lucky!’ They think they’re helping, but they’re not.”
Though well-meaning, they add to the pain, I knew. Even this week yet one more person offered to send me a detailed letter of how I could cure myself, the foods and supplements and treatments and oils I should use to alleviate my suffering. As if I haven’t already tried everything.
As if my pain is my fault.
But not all are as misdirected. We then talked about the sweet gift of those rare souls who, rather than trying to cure our pain or deflect it, step into it with us.
Rather than blame, they bear.
That’s when he looked me in the eye and said with an empathy I knew was hard-earned:
“I’m so sorry for your suffering.”
I let the words land, allowing them to soak and soften the brittle places. Then, I smiled. Nodded. And offered the very same words back to him.
And we both agreed, to the person in a place of pain, that’s all that is needed.
The problem is, however, we want to say more, do more. Pain makes us uncomfortable, even if it isn’t our own. Maybe especially then. So we try to distance ourselves from it, by offering cliches and cures, maxims and memes. But in our effort to make suffering more manageable, we actually neglect those in the middle of it.
What if we started being more intentional with our attempts at empathy? What if we started practicing new words, new offerings, rather than continuing to use the tired old ones?
Rather than filling space with our platitudes, let’s make space with our presence.
And rather than offering our unsolicited solutions, let’s make space for questions and then listen to the answers.
What do you need most right now?
What’s the most difficult part of this for you?
How can I love you well right here?
And I’m so sorry for your suffering.
These are the words the person who suffers needs to hear most. Because they communicate nearness, presence, and make the person in pain feel less alone.
To those who are exhausted, beat up, worn down, and overwhelmed, Jesus entered in. He didn’t add blame and shame to those already bent over with the weight of their burden. And He didn’t deliver a three-point directive of self-cures and solutions.
Instead, He offered all of Himself, for all that we need:
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.
Take my yoke upon you and learn from me,
for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.
For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.
Matthew 11:28-30 (NIV)
Gentleness. Steadfastness. And Presence in the middle of pain.