Devastating trials come in all different forms and durations: Depression. Job loss. Financial difficulty. Cancer. Death of a loved one. Prodigal child. Divorce.
I’ve experienced many, and on a couple different occasions, I’ve experienced more than one significant event simultaneously, just adding to the intensity of the pain and despair. Some would encourage me to take one day at a time when truly, I was praying for help to successfully navigate five minutes at a time.
Both professionally as a neuropsychologist, but personally as one who has experienced my share of hardship, I’ve come to realize what when tragedy hits, others, including well-intentioned friends and family, often don’t know what to say. After being a clinical neuropsychologist for over 20 years, hardly anything surprises me anymore, but earlier in my career, I was surprised by some of the comments that I heard people say in response to others’ suffering.
I’ve been on the other side of the situation as well: finding out that a friend’s child was incarcerated, or their spouse had an affair, or a friend lost a child to a drug overdose, and being so dumbfounded and without adequate words to console or convey the pain in my heart for them. How do you truly relate to their pain if you’ve never walked their path? And how do you express your concern in a way that comforts while avoiding platitudes or just fills the empty space with hollow sounding syllables that helps no one?
“The tongue can bring death or life; those who love to talk will reap the consequences.” (Proverbs 18:21)
In walking alongside patients who are suffering through devastating circumstances, as well as speaking from my own experience having previously gone through depression and a prolonged bout with pneumonia, or as a caregiver of a spouse who has been diagnosed on more than one occasion with cancer, would you allow me to share what is and isn’t helpful? Because sometimes we just don’t know.
-Please don’t say: “You’ll learn something from this.” When you’re in the middle of heartache, you don’t care about learning from the pain. You just want the pain to end. If a lesson comes in the end, that’s just bonus.
-Please don’t say: “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.” When you’re holding on with all you’ve got, sometimes praying just to make it through the next five minutes, it’s not a goal to become stronger but rather, just to survive.
-Please don’t say: “Someone else has it worse off than you.” This is the case for just about everyone in the universe, but bringing that to one’s attention doesn’t do anything to alleviate the pain in our own suffering, and just makes someone feel like you lack compassion and empathy, and that you don’t care.
-Please don’t say: “This too shall pass.” In the midst of despair, logically we already know this, but each day we arise hoping that today will be the day. So unless you can tell us when things will take a turn for the better, it’s better not to say this.
-Please don’t say: “This must be because you have unconfessed sin in your life.” This statement just serves to heap guilt, shame, and condemnation on someone who is already feeling discouraged and perhaps hopeless. Scripture says, “There is therefore, now, no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). So rather than instill guilt and shame, share His love, mercy, and hope.
-Please don’t tell the horror stories of others you know who have also suffered through similar situations. Both when I was struggling with a 12-week bout with pneumonia, as well as the times when my husband was being treated for cancer, it was amazing how many people shared with us the horror stories of every friend or distant relative they had who had been misdiagnosed or died from pneumonia or cancer. Rather than encourage us, it only served to invoke fear, doubt, and discouragement—quite the opposite of the encouragement, inspiration, and hope that we needed at the time.
-Please don’t say: “You’ll be better off for it in the long run.” First of all, you have no way of knowing that. Secondly, when you’re in the midst of a crisis, the greatest concern is getting through the crisis as quickly with as little fallout as possible—not thinking about how a divorce, or bankruptcy, or death of a loved one might possibly make one’s life better (if that’s even possible!)
Kind words are like honey–sweet to the soul and healthy for the body.
Knowing what not to say is more than half the battle. So what is helpful to say?
–Pray with me and for me when I don’t even know what to pray for myself.
–“I love you.” When you’re going through a difficult time, you need to know that despite your circumstances, despite your mistakes, that you are still loved.
–“We’ll get through this together.” In the difficult, devastating times in life, your emotions make you feel alone in this world and it helps to know that at least one person is willing to still by you and see you through to the other side of the valley.
–“You are strong.” Rough patches test your physical strength, your mental fortitude, and your emotional tenacity. Sometimes you need the reminder that despite what your emotions tell you, you ARE strong—just hang in there.
–“You are brave and courageous.” Going through life’s difficult situations requires courage and bravery when in reality we often feel meek and afraid. Sometimes we just need someone to have confidence in us when our own self-confidence is wavering—it’s often just the thing that can undergird us with the fortitude to push through the fear and keep going.
–“This is hard, but you’ve made it through every other hard situation that’s been thrown at you. You’ll make it through this too!” The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. Sometimes we just need to be reminded that even though we are in a difficult spot, we’ve made it through other difficult spots before, and we can do it again!
“Dear children, let’s not merely say that we love each other; let us show the truth by our actions”
(1 John 3:18).
As a neuropsychologist, I constantly study human behavior. I watch what people do, as well as what they don’t do. I listen to what they say, and what they don’t say. So often we speak in order to ease our own discomfort in the weighty silence, and do more damage in the process, where a well-timed wordless gesture might mean so much more:
-Hold me and let me weep until I’m out of tears.
-Dry my tears.
-Hold my hand.
-Don’t make me be alone, or conversely, if I want to be alone, check on me frequently.
-Offer a hug or a squeeze on the shoulder.
-Deliver a cheerful bouquet of flowers to bring a bright spot to an otherwise dark situation.
-Listen quietly to me share my pain, without trying to solve my situation.
-Offer to walk with me—the fresh air will do me good.
-Take me to coffee.
-Going to the grocery store, dry cleaner, or drug store? Offer to pick up a few items for me as well.
-Do your kids go to the same school as mine? Offer to pick mine up after school and bring them home for me.
-Fixing a casserole? Make a double recipe, and bring half over to alleviate the burden of meal preparation for me one night.
-If illness is an issue, offer to go with me to doctor’s appointments. There is nothing worse than going alone.
-Stop by and pick up a load or two of laundry and return it washed, dried, and folded in the next day or two on your way to or from work.
-Pick the children up one afternoon to allow a couple hours to take a nap, run errands, converse privately with doctors/attorneys/teachers/family members, etc.
In as early as Genesis 2:18, God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone…” In difficult times especially, we need each other. But it helps to have some guidance regarding what to say, what not to say, and things we can do which lend practical help to those who are suffering because if we’ve never gone through the same or similar situation, experience has not yet been our teacher.
As I’ve spoken to others who are going through various trials, I’ve heard of other comments that weren’t helpful. I’d love it if you would share your own examples of either unhelpful OR helpful comments or actions in the comments in an effort to educate others who truly want to be better equipped to “weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice…”
Because of Him, #HopePrevails!
(If you have a question you’d like Dr. B to answer, contact her here now. Your name and identity will be kept confidential.)
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Insights from a Doctor’s Personal Journey through Depression
Dr. Michelle Bengtson
Speaking from personal and professional experience, a neuropsychologist unpacks what depression is, shows how it affects us spiritually, and offers hope for living the abundant life.
Neuropsychologist Offers Hope to Those Struggling with Depression
-By 2020, depression will be our greatest epidemic worldwide
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- Helpful features include personal stories, biblical truths, prayers, and music recommendations
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While my only child was struggling on brink between life and death I was told by ” Christian” friends to not complain ( I was not I was devastated by this sudden illness and despite many years of trust in God felt bereft of Him for the first time and that was the hardest part). All this while with healthy children of their own their biggest fear was not making the 500,000 dollars they needed to stay in the affluent neighborhood. That was hard to take. I think Christians can be very hard hearted in taking care of each other. We are great at trying to save the world but do not know what Jesus actually meant in Matthew 6:33. God is love and if we seek Him first and His kingdom which is in each of us then we keep others first in love. It’s not easy to stop and rethink ” God, spouse, children, then all others. That’s not what He says. My God mars the line of ” family!”
Megan, I’m so very sorry you had to experience the pain brought on by the insensitivity of others while you were suffering through your own heartache and fear. While I don’t know the rest of your story, it’s my hope that the God of all comfort reached down and tended to your heart and brought you out of such turmoil in His grace and mercy.
Michelle, I loved how you ended with “Because of Him , hope prevails “. Powerful to remember when so much can seem dark and careening us close to despair. Thank you greatly for the practicality of these examples. I can’t tell you how helpful they are to me. I too have suffered long and hard at times, sometimes with two or more trials at once, and it can leave us feeling like we are going under. But when I was at such a loss as to how life could change for us, I would cling to hope remaining because of Him. And that had to be enough. And it was enough! Praise His. Amen for that:) Well done Michelle!
Gretchen, I so appreciate you taking the time to comment, and I especially love your testimony that when you felt like you were going under, clinging to Him was enough! It has to be, and it is! We often want to look to others, we want to talk to others, we need others, but ultimately, HE has to be enough, and He will be! Thanks for sharing. Your testimony will encourage others! Because of Him, #HopePrevails!
As a minister I wanted to jump up and say YES!! This is such wonderful advice. I pray we will all measure our words wisely and consider what we can do to offer hope without feeling like we have to have an answer for the suffering in this world. With God we do have hope and His comfort is like no one else. Visiting from #MMBH.
Angela, thank you for your encouragement. I hope it will encourage others as well. It was a hard message to share but one that I felt impressed upon my heart to deliver. I want to share the hope that He has so liberally given to me. Blessings to you!
I am as guilty as the next one at watching what I say sometimes things dont come out like we want them to. Then again there are words in today’s language that the young folks use that us in the mid age do not interpet well or say well
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You’re right. I think we just need to be careful to think before we speak and recognize that sometimes our actions will convey the intent of our heart and mean more than words can ever convey.
Different people are encouraged, or discouraged by different things. From my perspective, “You’re strong” is one of the most hurtful things you can say to someone who is suffering. Instead of “Can I help you carry that heavy burden?” (Gal 6:2) you’re saying, “Even though you’re collapsing under that load, I’ll pretend I don’t notice, and I’ll offer no help.” On the other hand, “this too will pass” I find to be very encouraging – a good reminder that this nightmare isn’t all there is in life. As they say, one man’s meat is another man’s poison, I guess.
Point taken. It all depends on your frame of reference and sensitivity to each individual’s situation is paramount. Thanks for sharing another perspective!
I love you! Thank you for the wisdom you so openly share. So many times we come into awkward positions of not knowing what to say, and there are times I have said nothing at all, but embraced that person with a heartfelt hug and a whispered promise of prayer. You are such a blessing to me! You are always in my prayers!
Rachelle, sometimes the thing that is needed most is not empty platitudes but a heartfelt hug and a whispered promise of prayer! We don’t have to have the words, we just need to share His love, just as you so often do! Keep blessing as you do.
Thank you for your suggestions of words of encouragement and comfort…so needed!
Kathleen, I hope they help. I’ve been in that position of not knowing what to say or what to do. And I’ve been on the receiving end of empty platitudes. My hope is to help educate and encourage, for His glory.
So true. Tweeted your wise words. Praying God continues to comfort and sustain you, your husband, and family. ((Hugs))
Dolly, thank you for sharing. Hopefully it’ll help others. We are thankful for your prayers and His faithfulness.
Practical and wise truth for those who never know what to say or do. I’m such a firm believer in just being present with anyone who needs a loving hand in a less than ideal circumstance. As a nurse/program director leading those with early memory loss, I see the stigma and subsequent fall out of dementia often. Happy to share these useful tips! Thanks!
Jill, so glad that you are in a position to be present. I wish more could see the value in that. It’s so very important whether the situation is dementia, cancer, or depression. Thank you for being there for others! Blessings to you.
What a beautiful post and lesson to us all, Michelle! Thank you. God bless you for sharing!
Thank you for your encouragement Caryl. I pray it helps others, for His glory.
I love the way you broke this down into “what not to say” and “what to say.” Sometimes it IS hard to know what to say. Your post has helped so much.
Ginger, Scripture says “My people parish for lack of knowledge.” Hoping that this helps give knowledge and insight into how to be most helpful to others going through a difficult time. I love your heart. Keep blessing, Dear One!
Dear Michelle this article was so helpful I like the way you broke in down between what to say and what not to say. You are such a blessing to me and those that know you. I love you.
Diana, I love your heart for people, and I know God is pleased with it as well. Keep giving, keep loving, keep showing up and being a light in others’ dark places. Because of Him, #HopePrevails
Good advice to heed (I pinned it and re-shared on FB) that I read at the No Rules Blog party. “My thoughts and prayers are with you” is an expression I often use to reach out to those who grieve or are experiencing some loss. Many Blessings, Nancy Andres
Nancy, I appreciate the pins and shares, so that it can help educate others. I think people really desire to help but just don’t know how. Blessings to you!
What to say and what NOT to say – I loved your suggestions. Last week our friends 24 year old son was struck by a car and killed. They were in church on Sunday and the Dad was in our Sunday School Class. After class was over and we sat around others began to express their sorrow. My words were, “My heart is broken with the things that break the heart of God, and I know he weeps now for you.” Then, I added, “I must let you know I really appreciate you showing up today.” (Most would have stayed home with self pity.) This couple needed to be here where we could hug them and tell them we loved them. Thank you for sharing with us here at Tell me a Story.
Hazel, thank you for recognizing them, acknowledging them, loving on them. That’s what they needed, and that’s what they will need in the days to come. Be a light in their dark days. Because of Him, #HopePrevails!
Well, I needed to hear this today and I am probably guilty of saying some of these things. I try not to interfere or say much, yet I feel helpless as to how to be that kind of friend or family member that cares deeply sometimes. Relationships are sometimes difficult even when you love the other person.
I feel like I am in the middle of a difficult situation between my sister and my dad’s wife, Arlene. My dad remarried after my mother passed away and we had already left home. She has basely left us out and when I stayed at my dad’s house to visit, she locked the door on me several times. She has control of everything and I have been very nice to her. Even cooked and tried to help clean around the house a few times, but she wants me to sit in a chair and not move. And my dad too. I cannot even look at photos with my dad. A few months ago, he fell and hit his head. Later, he fell again and we found out he has fallen several times and never been taken to the doctor…until recently
She has the power of attorney and she will be getting everything…so what, but my sister is very mad with her and fighting this situation. My dad has no clue as to what is going on and he lays looking pitifully in the hospital bed.
I am concerned for him and I certainly do not think he needs to go back home. She cannot take care of him. Meanwhile, I am trying to stay out of the situation between my sister and her.
My sister meanwhile has filed for foreclosure on her house and moved to where my dad lives. She told me she sold the house. She has a job as physical therapist and I feel almost caught in middle…one calls me and the other calls to tell me what is going on and I just want to know about my dad is nothing else.
I think I am stressing out on whole situation. I don’t how I can handle going back home seeing those people I know and who know her or my sister. Any suggestions.
I know go eat lots of chocolate, right? it is just I am glad I am not there right now.
Oh Joyce, it certainly sounds like there are no easy answers in this situation. If you believe your father is being neglected or mistreated, then you’d need to call adult protective services. As for a step-mother’s unkind attitude, about all you can do is pray for her and love her into kindness. People like that act out of their own wounding, and hurt people hurt people. It is probably wise on your part not to interfere between you Dad’s wife and your sister–that’s for them to work out. I’m so sorry you have such an uncomfortable situation to endure. Your best course of action is to always pray and ask the Lord what to do and to give you the strength to endure. With Hope, DrB
I think we are all guilty of having said or done some of these things at some point. The point is, we can learn, and we can love better. And yes, I’m an advocate of chocolate!! Especially with sea salt caramel.