How to Comfort Someone in Pain

This post is part of an ongoing series on ministering to people in pain. Click here to see all the posts in this series.

Last week, we talked about what not to say to someone in pain. Admittedly, I left you hanging. Some of you have been wondering what you are allowed to say ever since reading that long do-not-say list. 

Admittedly, that was part of the point. If you hesitated before speaking, then I did my job. We too frequently talk at people’s pain, when we need to be more comfortable with listening and silence. We chase pain away with our words when it makes us afraid, uncomfortable, or disoriented. We try to sanitize someone’s pain, to keep it from getting us messy, or to give it a quick fix, to get it over with already. 

Ministering to someone who is suffering requires us to be patient, to sit comfortably in the uncomfortable space of pain, unafraid. Pain is a process. Do not rush it. Remember that your role is to emphasize managing pain, and minister love in the midst of it; your role is not eliminating pain.

Always opt for listening over fixing, and asking over assuming. Remember that saying “I don’t know what to say. I’m just so sorry you’re going through this.” is a fine response. And above all, pray to the God of comfort, for His wisdom and grace to love well.

Show up and be there (Ministry of Presence)

Ministry of presence is always an excellent response to pain. When we’re suffering, we need people who will just be with us, without an agenda, without expecting us to talk, without expecting us to have a perfect theology. We need people who will show up—and keep showing up—with compassion. We need people who will weep with us, who will listen to us rant, who will sit with us in silence when our tears and words have run dry. 

It is not a bad idea to adopt this as your guiding principle: “Unless you truly know what you’re talking about, just keep your mouth shut and sit there.”

Be a good listener

There is healing power in the simple yet profound act of telling our story and having it heard and believed. There is something in that space of storytelling and listening that, even for a moment, lessens our pain—because we’ve been seen and heard. 

When someone entrusts you with their story, there is probably little more to say than, “Thank you so much for trusting me with this.” 

Practice empathy

Our speech should come from a place of true empathy. Empathy says, “I see you here in this pain, and I’ll sit with you here in it.” It says, “I’m sorry you’re hurting—that must be very difficult.” Empathy draws on our own experiences with pain, teaching us how to enter into someone else’s. 

Brene Brown has probably the best video around on empathy. It’s really worth a watch…

Stay in touch

Don’t expect your suffering friend to be the one to keep reaching out to you. Instead of telling them they can call, tell them you will call (or stop by, etc), and then carry through on that promise. Phone calls, texts, and good old-fashioned notes can be meaningful. Let them know you’re praying for them, you love them, you care about them, etc. Do not disappear.

Make offers to help

Ask your friend what you can do to help and support them. Be aware that they may not be able to articulate what their needs are. In this case, make specific offers of help (”Can I bring you a meal on Tuesday?”, “I’m going to the store, what can I pick up for you?”, “Can I help with laundry?”, etc.). Don’t push it if they turn down your help.

Encourage their strength and resilience

When you’re in pain, you need people to validate it—but you don’t need people who are going to enable you to wallow in it. Humans are incredibly resilient, even in the worst of circumstances. Pay attention to areas of strength, bravery, resilience, and growth, and point them out. Hold up a mirror for others to see their own strength.

* * *

I know some of you might prefer a list of go-to responses to people’s pain, but I’m afraid I can’t offer you that (as much as I might want one myself!). It’s simply not that easy. In many ways, the remaining posts in this series will be the answer to this question of how to help someone in pain. For now, I will leave you with this:

Today we talked.
I said, "I'm confused." You asked about my devotions.
I said, "I get angry." You quoted a verse.
I said, "I hurt." You said "Believe."
I said, "I'm depressed." You said, "Rejoice."

You said I could call. I said I would try.
You said you would pray. I suppressed my doubts.
You said things would get better. I wondered, When?
As we parted, you waved with a smile.

Today we talked. Neither of us listened.
And though we talked, there was silence.
Nobody said, "I care."

Today we talked.
I said, "I'm confused." You asked, "About what?"
I said, "I get angry." You asked, "When?"
I said, "I hurt." You asked, "Why?"
I said, "I'm depressed." You said, "I care."

You said you would call. I said, "Please do!"
You said you would pray. I knew you would.
You said things will get better. I tried to believe.
You said there is hope, and you wrapped it in a hug.

Today we talked. You listened for both of us.
And as we talked, there was a third voice.
He said, "I care" with your lips. 

- “Today We Talked,” Ted Heatherington (1991)