How to Care for Hurting People: Showing Empathy

Rev. Deb Koster

January 31, 2021

When pain and sorrow rip through our families, they are never an invited guest. We are all just a phone call away from falling to our knees. We hear of a friend in a tragic accident or a family member with cancer and our lives come to a halt. Loss leaves us overwhelmed and struggling to reclaim our footing. We struggle with how to care for those we love who are thrown into such deep pain and loss. We can’t make sense of it. “How can a good and gracious God allow such pain and heartache to touch the ones we love?” How can we care for someone who is hurting when we can’t make sense of it ourselves?

Reach out

When people are hurting they struggle to reach out, so the pain brings isolation. Take the initiative and reach out to those who are hurting, don’t wait for them to call you. Loss cripples our normal functioning and makes it difficult to think clearly. Offer to step in wherever you see a gap. Offer to pick up groceries, drop over a meal, or mow the grass. It is hard for those who are hurting to see past their pain to ask for help, so just reach out and help.

Be present

We may not have a clue what to say or how to make sense of the situation, but that should not keep us away. Every part of our being may want to run the other way and flee the pain, but fleeing the scene won’t help. Pain needs to be faced so put on a brave face and draw close to those who are hurting. They don't need the perfect words, they need to know that they are not alone in their pain. They need to know that others care enough to walk through the hurt with them. Most support disappears after the initial shock has passed, but help may still be needed for months down the road.

Choose to listen

Plan to listen more than you talk. Take time to hear the concerns that are being experienced. We don’t need to try to solve their problems or make sense of their tragedy. We just need to hear the heart of a friend so that they know that someone cares. Listening to someone is a gift that demonstrates that they are valued. An attentive ear may be the most treasured gift that you can offer to someone who is hurting.

Don’t place blame

In the Bible, Job’s friends did great when they came to grieve with Job and they listened to him in silence. All was well until they opened their mouths. As the friends tried to make sense out of what happened to Job they reasoned that he must have done something to offend God. The truth is that often the reasons things happen are outside of our human understanding. Only God is the judge, and we only damage relationships when we take on that role of passing judgment.

Don’t offer platitudes

There is so much that we will never understand this side of heaven that's it's okay to say simply we don't know or understand. It is better to say that you don’t understand than to repeat polite platitudes that only make light of the pain being experienced. People do not need to hear that this is somehow God’s will or that God is working out all things for the best. In the midst of deep pain these responses lack compassion. It is okay to say that this situation does not make sense, and it hurts.

Share in the emotion

There is no right and wrong way to grieve. Sometimes grieving is weeping over losses and other times it is laughing over good memories. Romans 12:15 tells us to “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” Sympathy says, “I feel bad about what you are going through”, but empathy shares in the emotion with the hurting person. Listen for the emotion being expressed and reflect it back. An empathetic person does not offer any empty platitudes, but instead shares the emotional burden that is being carried.

Pray for them

Don’t just say you will pray for them, actually do it. Pray for specific needs and let them know that you are praying. Don’t hesitate to pray in the moment when you hear a need. Those spontaneous prayers are meaningful and God will give you the words to say. Later you might smile over the odd places that you have prayed, but that prayer will not be forgotten. It will stand as a reminder that someone cared enough to take a need to God the minute that they understood the issue.

Proverbs 25:20 reminds us not to sing songs to a heavy heart. We don’t pretend that everything is sunshine and ignore the elephant in the room, but we enter into the pain by listening and caring over the long haul. It is not easy, but the friendships that are formed when we walk through heartache together are strong bonds. No one is exempt from pain and as Christians we can play a part in demonstrating God’s love by caring for the hurting people in our lives.

About the author — Rev. Deb Koster

Deb Koster is a producer, writer, and speaker for Family Fire. She is also an Innkeeper at The Parsonage Inn in Grand Rapids, MI where she leads marriage retreat on weekends. After over 20 years as a Registered Nurse, she completed a Master of Divinity degree and was ordained as a pastor in the Christian Reformed Church. Deb and her husband Steven enjoy doing ministry together and they are the parents of three awesome young adults.

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