When I’m going through a difficult time, all I want is someone to listen. But grief and suffering are uncomfortable, and sometimes friends feel the need to fill that awkward silence, so they launch into stories of how they know someone facing a similar problem or they offer me advice or they avoid me altogether.
Ashleigh Slater expands on the importance of listening in “When Others Grieve, Talk Less and Listen More,” writing, “When you and I actively listen, we acknowledge and validate another’s pain, minus any attempts to fix the unfixable. Because the difficult truth is that I can’t heal the brokenhearted, as much as I wish I could. Only God can do that. What I can do, though, is to offer comfort — and for this a deluge of words isn’t required. Yet active listening, sans advice can sometimes be hard.”
It’s hard because there are often no words that can improve things. For example, I have a chronic stomach disorder that cannot be cured and I’m in pain regularly — what is someone supposed to say to me when they find out?
I imagine their thoughts go something like this: What do I say? How do I help? It’s my job to cheer her up! Quick, think of something. What if I say the wrong thing? What if it’s too late now that we’ve been sitting here in silence for too long while I’ve been thinking of what to say?
“There’s nobody on earth who can make everything okay for a mother who has lost her child, or for a man whose wife was diagnosed with cancer,” wrote Kelsey Crowe, Ph.D., and Emily McDowell in “There is No Good Card for This: What to Say and Do When Life is Scary, Awful, and Unfair to People You Love.”
What kind of non-listener are you?
Crowe and McDowell described five types of non-listeners. I’ve seen each of these types in action, and here’s how they’ve affected my emotions:
1. “The Sage”
The Sage gives advice when it’s unasked. This is the most common reaction I get when I tell someone I’m sick. “You should see a doctor.” “You should exercise more.” “Have you tried kale?” “Have you tried yoga?” The other day, someone suggested I get tested for Lyme disease without knowing any of my symptoms. It’s frustrating because these people have good intentions with these comments, but I don’t need theories from people who know nothing about my issues during a time of crisis and vulnerability. “Doing this leads to two hurtful implications,” wrote Crowe and McDowell. “(1) the event was preventable and/or deserved, because of this person had only done X or Y instead they would be fine, and (2) your fact-finding mission is less about providing comfort than about ‘weeding out’ the source of a problem — to make sure it doesn’t happen to you.”
2. “The Optimist”
The Optimist assures the friend that life is still pretty good. When I was going through depression, a close friend said, “But you have so many great things going for you!” She simply wanted to cheer me up, but the comment was destructive because it added guilt onto the pile of terrible emotions I was already feeling, and completely closed the door to conversation. I no longer felt comfortable talking about my negative feelings. Christian optimists may say things like, “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle” or “If you trust God, you’ll feel better.” These are also unhelpful comments, because the Bible does not say Christians will avoid suffering if they trust God; instead, the Bible refers often to the trials and burdens Christians experience and how to respond to them. One of the most helpful things a friend told me during a difficult time was that God did not inflict this suffering upon me and, in fact, He suffers with me. Jesus did not stand stoically by as Mary wept over her brother’s death, nor did He tell her to cheer up; instead, He wept with her (John 11:35). God mourns with those who mourn.
3. “The Doomsayer”
The Doomsayer thinks of all the horrible possibilities associated with the problem. “Whether it’s a comment on how much sleep deprivation a new parent should expect, or a listing of the statistics surrounding death rates and lung cancer, people do not feel comforted by worst-case scenarios,” wrote Crowe and McDowell. Those things are probably already going through my brain, so this simply compounds fear.
4. “The Epidemiologist”
The Epidemiologist asks many fact-based questions before considering how the friend is feeling. When I want to talk about my emotions during a time of crisis, I don’t feel like describing every detail of my illness. That makes me feel like the friend is more intrigued about my situation than caring about me as a person.
5. “The All About Me”
The All About Me turns the conversation to himself or herself in an effort to show empathy. I actually fit into this category myself. I want my friend to know he’s not alone, and so I tell him I know how he feels because [insert story of what happened to me here]. But I’ve realized that’s not super helpful — it makes things about me. Especially when my friend is in crisis, maybe just listening to his problem is the most loving way I can be there for him. There may be a time to share my personal story for solidarity, but when I do, I should be doing only a small amount of the talking and then bring the conversation back to my friend’s experience.
Sometimes silence is all that’s needed.
If you’re inclined to any of these tendencies, keep in mind Slater’s advice on listening: “It’s possible someone in your life is facing a heartbreaking loss right now. Perhaps it’s unemployment, a delayed or unfulfilled dream, a health challenge, a breakup or the death of a loved one. If so, less talking and more listening might be exactly what they need from you too.”
Job’s friends practiced this at first. After Satan inflicted Job with sores, his friends heard about his troubles and set out to comfort him. But when they saw how much pain he was in, they said nothing: “They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great” (Job 2:13). It’s not clear if his friends didn’t know what to say, or if they just realized nothing they could say would help. Sometimes just letting your friends know they’re not alone is the most loving thing you can do.