Monday, October 19, 2009

Tip #1: The Art of Compassionate Support


"When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died."

When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. "Where have you laid him?" he asked.
"Come and see, Lord," they replied.

Jesus wept."

John 11:32-35

I met M. in graduate school. I liked her quiet presence. She had a way of just being with you without saying much. I could tell she was going to be an outstanding therapist. Her insights were amazing when we studied clinical cases. After spending some time together I realized she was quietly suffering. She had chronic depression. You could see it on her face. She looked in pain or troubled by something. She didn't have much energy. M. didn't hang out with the other graduate students after hours. At times her mood dragged me down too. I sometimes was relieved that our time together came to an end.

I wasn't M.'s only friend. She had connections at school, but they were sparse. She told me that one friend called her up to talk. When the friend learned that M. was having a rough day, she replied she would call back later when M. was feeling better. This crushed her. It was embarrassing and rejecting. However, I understood where this person was coming from. You call someone up and can't wait to tell them your latest news only to find out that they are emotionally unavailable. It's awkward and feels socially clumsy. But this wasn't being the kind of friend that M. needed.

There are all kinds of emotional pain. Some emotional pain seems to have no explanation, like depression or anxiety. Some pain comes in the form of shock, like a car accident. Then there is the type of pain that comes with bad news--like losing a job. Emotional pain also can come from physical pain---acute or chronic. I think the worst emotional pain is grief.

I love the story of Jesus meeting Mary and Martha in the streets after their brother had died. Mary was hopping mad. She knew Jesus could heal her brother and had asked him to come earlier, but he didn't show up in time. She met him in the street and let him have it. "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." Wow, right straight to the point. Jesus didn't get defensive though. He didn't give her a theological discussion on healing. He didn't get personally hurt or angry. Instead he listened to her emotional response, allowed himself to feel her pain, and was moved. So moved that he wept. He didn't just shed a tear, he wept.

How can you or I help someone who is in pain? The biggest gift you can give is your silent emotional support. M. didn't need me to tease her out of her depression. She didn't want to be told that the glass was really half-full, not half-empty. She just wanted me to accept her as she was: pain and all. Being present and listening is a way to do that. Our non-judgmental support of someone hurting communicates empathy and compassion. I know this sounds like nothing. But it is the most powerful thing you can do.

You want to be a friend to someone in pain? Be with them. Listen to them. Finally, be moved by them. Then you are being like Jesus, our truest friend.

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