By Ken Czillinger
Helpless. This one word sums up how we often feel when someone we care about is hurting—physically or emotionally. And to be helpless is to be powerless to change, cure, or “fix” someone or something. When we feel helpless, we feel handicapped, crippled, unable to make a significant difference in the life of the one we love. Our mother is dying, and we can’t do it for her. We see our friend being destroyed by alcoholism, and we have no control over what is happening. Our grown son struggles through a wrenching divorce, and we are unable to ease his pain. Our third grader “has no friends,” and we have no answers.
Overwhelmed by feeling so helpless, some of us choose the route of noninvolvement, or “waiting it out.” We, in effect, abandon the one we care about. Others of us choose the route of offering well-meaning aid or advice. We inadvertently alienate our loved one or prevent that person from owning and dealing with the suffering. And some of us, no matter which route we take, can’t help but worry endlessly, thus jeopardizing our own welfare. This CareNote attempts to help you recognize the opportunities present in the midst of the suffering you and your loved one are undergoing. You feel helpless, yes. And someone you care about feels helpless. But opportunity and challenge abound here— to develop or deepen friendship, to build intimacy, to offer unconditional love.
Working your way through.
For 20 years, I have had the privilege of serving suffering, dying, and grieving persons. I want to share with you some of the most important insights I have gained.
Take the initiative.
Even though we may feel inadequate, out of control, without answers, and afraid of failure, we must admit these painful feelings and risk getting involved. We must reach out to the person we care about. A simple note, a kind word, a gentle touch, a listening ear can mean so much to someone bearing a weighty burden of pain.
Be a good student.
My brother, Tom, is a young man with Down Syndrome. Since 1970, I have been his legal guardian. I have given a lot of myself and my life to Tom. But if he were to die before me, I know I would miss most the many “gifts” I have received from him—revelations about people and life and God. Suffering people are often our best teachers. They show us the true meaning of patience, compassion, and faith. And we need to be effective receivers and learners. It’s also important to watch our language in caring for the suffering. If we cannot identify with the suffering person’s experience, if we have not been there, then we need to be careful about using expressions like “I understand,” or “I can imagine what it’s like.” And even if we have been through the experience, we need to appreciate the differences in each story.
Beware of what you say about God.
When we are not comfortable being helpless, we can make some very inappropriate comments about God, God’s will, God’s plan, or God’s role in suffering. I believe in God’s presence in the midst of suffering, but often God’s footprints are difficult to find. When I encounter tragic situations that appear to have nothing of God in them, I have to pray to become more comfortable with mystery and ambiguity.
In ministering to suffering people, I rarely have just the right Biblical passage to console or the right answer to all the agonizing whys. We need to let suffering people vent their frustration, anger, and even hatred toward God. For until a sufferer acknowledges despair, he or she cannot befriend it. I’ve learned that many people curse God on the difficult journey of moving to deeper praise and blessing.
Be aware of available resources.
I receive many phone calls from or about people who are suffering. I perceive myself as a switchboard operator trying to link these people with existing media resources, support groups, or professionals in the areas of pastoral ministry, pastoral counseling, and healthcare. Suffering persons can take comfort in knowing that a network of caring people stands ready to support them. A few phone calls can yield much.
Those of us concerned about suffering loved ones need to be careful about doing too much alone. Even though we may have the best of intentions, we might be acting out of ignorance or lack of understanding of the real problem, and end up being more hurtful than helpful. Goodwill is not enough in every situation; special skills—which we may lack—are often necessary. In many cases, we need to turn to more qualified resource persons mentioned above.
Avoid the “fix-it” approach.
Our good intentions can also go awry if we try to take control of a situation that the suffering person really needs to deal with him or herself. Each of us must somehow come to terms with the sorrowful events of our life and with our unique pain. Trying to shoulder another’s cross may actually hinder that person from feeling the pain, taking responsibility for it, and making life changes that might alleviate it. We can feel for another, we can be there for another, but we can never suffer for another. Sometimes just listening is the most precious gift we can offer a suffering person.
While we might prefer to try to “fix” the problem—to give advice, voice our opinion, take matters into our own hands—so often the most consoling and empowering action we can take is just to listen. We need to empty ourselves of our own need to be wise or powerful or helpful, so that our suffering loved one can pour out the sorrow from an overflowing heart.
Take care of yourself.
My first commandment in this ministry is “Thou shalt take care of thyself.” I believe we are called to empty ourselves for others, but we have to respect our own needs. We must be aware of our limits. We need to know what we can and cannot offer to someone who is suffering. Sometimes what we can give depends upon our relationship with the person, or the circumstances of our own life. No one can be there for others 100 percent of the time. We need balance in our lives.
In order to be effectively present to the suffering, we must build in ample free time for ourselves—to relax and enjoy things that we choose to put on our calendar or that we want to do spontaneously. There are times when it is vital to say no to others and yes to ourselves—even if we feel guilty in doing so.
A friend with a life-threatening illness has spent many days in the hospital during the past four years. She recently told me that, once, after facing yet another setback, she confronted God and asked why this was happening again to her. Then, with a smile on her face and out of the depths of a rich inner peace, she shared with me how she suddenly realized she had “to stay in the story,” and not abandon her relationship with God.
When we are helpless, we may have more questions than answers. God may seem very far away. We may be tempted to exit from the story of the person we care about or from the story of our faith. As my friend has taught me, however, it’s precisely at these moments that we need to stay in the story. For in the midst of crisis lie further opportunities for loving unconditionally and becoming more fully human.