Emotional: Be Present—in the Moment—to the Sufferer
Covered only by a thin hospital gown, I was particularly physically and emotionally vulnerable when this “helper” engaged me. And although I wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt, excusing her behavior because she “meant well,” my heart broke for the other vulnerable ones who I knew had been treated the same.
It is natural to want to fill the void of pain or confusion or grief with words, activity, and other forms of “helping.” But often what a sufferer most needs is for you to be present to whatever he or she is experiencing in the moment. If she’s sad, reflect that sadness. If he’s confused, let him know you understand. Be present to the experience of the person who’s suffering.
And listening is more important than speaking, After the nurse touched my arm. I made a mental note to tell my psychology students how helpful the appropriate touch and patient listening had been for me. I’d always taught my students that, when warranted and invited, effective listening would be useful in their practice as well. I’d assure them that most people want to help but don’t know how—and that being present to another’s suffering, physically, emotionally, and spiritually, is what those in crisis need most.
Although a lot of people feel like they need to have all the “right” answers before they can help, people who are hurting need relationship itself more than they need certain words.
One of the greatest gifts someone can offer is to listen well and be present to another’s suffering.
That means demonstrating warmth and concern while turning off the part of your brain that’s paying more attention to what you’re thinking than to what’s being said. In some cases, letting another know that you hear and grasp the gravity of what they’ve been through might even mean crying with the other person.
We’d practice this when I’d taken students out in the field after a natural disaster. When engaging with women and men whose lives had been devastated by flood, fire, or hurricane, my students’ impulse—their natural human impulse—was to do something to fix the situation. And while there’s definitely a place for lacing up work boots and hauling away debris, other volunteers could do that.
What I most wanted my students to learn was how to listen well to those experiencing disaster and to be a steadfast loving presence to those whose lives felt so completely untethered.
Photo Credit: ©Thinkstock/Pablo K