helping friend in need


Helping Those Who Hurt, repackaged ed., 
by H. Norman Wright
Copyright © 2006 - Book Excerpt

Called to Help a Friend

In one small European village was a town square that held a special statue. This statue was the pride and joy of the small town, but World War II arrived and soon the bombs began falling on the town. One day the statue was hit and blown to pieces. The residents collected all the shattered pieces and slowly did what they could to re-create it. When they finished the reconstruction of their beloved statue of Jesus, they noticed that the only pieces missing were the hands of Jesus. So they placed a plaque at the base of the statue with the words: Now we are the only hands that Jesus has.

Isn't this our calling to those around us? We are His hands. You may have the desire to reach out and help your friends but hesitate. "What do I say? What do I do? What should I avoid?" You're not alone with your concern. You don't want to say or do the wrong thing and hurt your friends. And during a loss or crisis you can't rely on them to tell you what they need. They may not know or have the energy it takes to tell you.

What will you say when a friend comes to you and says:

"I've just been told I have cancer and it's terminal."

"It was a phone call ... he's dead ... he's been killed ... my husband."

"My daughter just told me she's been molested for three years."

"I was in the video store and it was robbed! The gun went off. I can't even think."

"I went to school to pick up my son. He wasn't there. They say he was kidnapped."

"My husband just told me he wants a divorce. I'm shocked. I didn't know anything was wrong."

I was sitting at the kitchen table in my daughter's home looking through a magazine while Sheryl fed her six-month-old daughter. The phone rang and she answered the call while continuing to feed her daughter. When she said, "Oh, no. I'm so sorry to hear that. That must have been a shock," my ears perked up. I continued to listen and watch her facial expressions. It was apparent that her friend was in some kind of distress. I observed Sheryl while she listened and reflected back what she was hearing. She made statements like, "So, you found the evidence and that's what led you to confront him," and "You're sounding hurt and disappointed." From time to time she asked questions: "Which of the children are aware of this?" and "How will _____ handle this at her stage in life?" She also asked, "Had you thought about this possibility?" and "Have you considered this?"

When her friend wasn't sure or seemed to waiver Sheryl said, "Is that really your responsibility at this time or is it his?" She helped her friend reconsider what was best to do and encouraged her to take the necessary steps. "You've given him more than a chance and trusted his word. Now it's been broken. I think you'll know what to do." She helped her friend explore several options as well as the consequences. On several occasions she reflected and clarified while her friend was thinking out loud. I could tell just from my daughter's comments and facial expressions that her friend was fairly devastated. I thought it was good that this woman had a trusted friend to talk with and help her work through this life-changing event.

My daughter wasn't judgmental in any way, but assisted her to clarify the problem. Her friend needed support, someone to listen, to help her sort through the options, and to help her stabilize her life at that time. After Sheryl hung up the phone we talked for a while. Sheryl made the comment, "I'm sure glad I'm not a counselor. I wouldn't want to do this for a living." I just looked at her, smiled, and said, "Oh, sure. You've only done this for fifteen years as a manicurist. You've helped as many women as some counselors have while you were sitting there doing their nails." She laughed because it was true. She helped many who would never go to talk to a counselor or pastor. But they would listen to her because of some of her own life experiences, her listening, her insight, and her desire to help. And so can you.

After forty years of counseling I'm convinced that as many as one-third to one-half of all the people I've seen didn't need to come and see me. That is—they didn't need to see me if they had a trained pastor, lay caregiver, or knowledgeable friend to meet with. I'm all for professional counseling when it's needed, but many issues can be resolved with the help of a friend who is willing to learn how to minister to others. And as Christians it is not an option to help or not help others. That is what the Christian life is all about—ministering to others. Many back off from this because they don't know what to say or do. That's understandable and acceptable. I still find myself in that position from time to time. And when that happens I go to work and learn what I need.

If you are saying, "I wouldn't know what to say or what to do," there is a solution. You can listen. Everyone can. It's not that difficult. Just imagine what our churches would be like if people knew what to say and do as well as what not to say and do! This can happen. This needs to happen. If others have no one to help them, no one to talk with, they end up talking to themselves. And the advice and help they give themselves isn't the best.

Many years ago (more than I'd like to admit) I was on the staff of a church as minister of education and youth. A man by the name of Alan Loy McGinnis was attending our church while completing his graduate work. Since he was also a minister, he would preach from time to time in the evening service. One Sunday night he walked up to the pulpit and said, "Tonight I would like to share with you what to say, what not to say, what to do, and what not to do at a time of bereavement."

Ours was not a note-taking congregation, until that moment. As I sat on the platform I could see people reaching for offering envelopes, prayer request cards, or any other piece of paper they could find to write on. I still have my notes from that evening. It was the first (and unfortunately the last) time I've ever heard a message on how to help another person at a time of need. Those in attendance that evening left with a greater sense of confidence on how to help another person.

You'll be more likely to reach out if you know what to say.

It's true—helping a hurting person is a bit scary. We want to do the right thing, not do the wrong thing, say what will help, not say what will hurt, and all these thoughts could be going on simultaneously. To add to our confusion, our friend is "not quite herself." She's different. We want our friend fixed, back to normal.

All you have to do is care. Harold Ivan Smith described the process so well:

Grief sharers always look for an opportunity to actively care. You can never "fix" an individual's grief, but you can wash the sink full of dishes, listen to him or her talk, take his or her kids to the park. You can never "fix" an individual's grief but you can visit the cemetery with him or her.

Grief sharing is not about fixing—it's about showing up. Coming alongside. Being interruptible. "Hanging out" with the bereaving. In the words of World War II veterans, "present and reporting for duty."

The grief path is not a brief path. It's a marathon, not a sprint. (Harold Ivan Smith, When You Don't Know What to Say, 15)

What can you expect from a friend who is hurting? Actually, not very much. And the more her experience moves beyond a loss and closer to a crisis or trauma, the more this is true. Sometimes you'll see a friend experiencing a case of the "crazies." Her response seems irrational. She's not herself. Her behavior is different from or even abnormal compared to the person not going through a major loss. Just remember she's reacting to an out-of-the-ordinary event. What she experienced is abnormal, so her response is actually quite normal. If what the person has experienced is traumatic she may even seem to exhibit some of the symptoms of ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder). And because your friend is this way she is not to be avoided. Others are needed at this time. These are responses you can expect. Your friend is no longer functioning as she once did—and probably won't for a while.

You Are Needed

When a person experiences a sudden intrusion in her life, a disruption, you are needed. If you (or another friend) aren't available, the only person she has to talk with for guidance, support, and direction is herself. And who wants support from someone struggling with a case of the "crazies"?

You are needed. But a problem may arise when your friend doesn't realize that she needs you, or at least that she needs you but not at that particular time. Your sensitivity is needed at this point. Remember when your friend is hurting and facing a loss, you too are dealing with a loss. The relationship you had with your friend has changed. It's not the same. It's no longer equal. You may feel as though you're the giver and your friend is the taker. Your relationship is off balance. The sharing the two of you had before has changed. The give-and-take you used to experience has vanished. What's important to you does not seem important to your friend. Your life and experiences have taken a backseat to the experience of your friend.

You can't put a time limit on your role as a helper or giver. This may get old for you, especially when it stretches on for months. Remember that when your relationship gets back to normal, it will be a new normal. It won't be the same. Sometimes a hurting friend ends up feeling resentful over being dependent upon you while at the same time appreciating all you've done for her.

Your friend in mourning—though he doesn't perceive himself that way—is self-centered. You simply cannot exist for him as a whole person, probably for a very long time. This can be hard on relationships. Friends get weary of ceasing to be perceived as human beings with feelings and problems and hopes in their own right. They get weary of being there for the other person in seemingly a one-sided relationship. But suffice it to say that your friend in mourning will not be able to empathize with you about things involving you for many months—or maybe years. (Nina Herrmann Donnelley, I Never Know What to Say, 21-22)

What Can You Do?

You can listen even when she's not talking. Sometimes she's not able to talk. But your attentive presence lets your friend know you're there to listen. You let her know you want to hear her story when she's up to talking about it.

If your friend is devastated and coming apart at the seams or sitting there stunned, you can't make her feel better or fix her. When we try it's often to help us feel useful and relieve our anxiety of seeing someone in this state. Remember, you can never be all you want to be or all your friend wants you to be for her. (Donnelley, 27-24)

What else can you expect? The world your friend experiences now won't be your world. Often she will retreat into her world and not let you in. Because of what she is going through your activities may not seem as significant as they once did. You will reevaluate your own standards and values. Your family may see how your friend's problems are changing you and pressure you to back off. They want you back to normal too.

You will be hurt at times since some of what you offer or do will be rejected. Because you haven't experienced the same loss, she may feel uncomfortable with you while at the same time want your help. Remember your friend is not functioning normally. In your heart and mind give her permission not to be as she was. If something is said or done that offends you, remind yourself that your friend cannot be expected to be as she was. You may wonder, Did I say something wrong? Am I off base? The answer is no. You're dealing with unpredictability. You're all right.

You may be tempted at times to set your friend straight spiritually. You might hear statements like, "I thought I could count on God but even He let me down" or "How could a loving God let something like that happen?" or "I think I'm losing my faith in God. I can't even pray anymore." Squelch your desire to start quoting Bible verses, shove a book in her face, or try to give answers. Be glad you're hearing where she is spiritually. Respond with a simple "Yes, what's happened doesn't make much sense, does it? It's hard to understand. I wish I had an answer for you," or just listen and reflect.

There will be times when your friend doesn't want you around. If you sense that might be the case, ask her, "What would be more comfortable for you at this time, for me to be here with you or to give you some space? I can do either." If your presence isn't needed, say, "I'll check back with you another time to see what I can do to assist you."

Let your friend know that you won't be offended if she doesn't want you to be there. And since none of us are mind readers, there will be times when you don't have any idea of what she needs. Let her know it's all right for her to tell you specifically what she needs, even if it's to say, "I don't know."

I will make this statement several times in this book: The best support you can give your friend is to normalize her feelings. This simply means reassuring her that what she is experiencing is natural; she isn't crazy. This advice can provide the greatest relief of all. But it means you need to understand what someone experiences from a loss or a trauma. (This will be discussed in chapter 7.)

Excerpted from:
Helping Those Who Hurt, repackaged ed., by H. Norman Wright
Copyright © 2006; ISBN 0764203061
Published by Bethany House Publishers
Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.

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Christian view of helping a friend in need


Christian view of helping a friend in need