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How to Be a Good Friend to Someone Who’s Hurting

Updated: Dec 31

Loving someone means sharing life with them—both the good and the bad. And like any other good endeavor, friendship takes practice.


In this post, I’ll share seven skills for how to be a good friend when the people we love are in pain‚ out of hope, or disappointed because life doesn’t look like they thought it would. As I researched and interviewed people for my book, these seven skills rose to the top of the conversations again and again.


Rejoice with Those Who Rejoice, Weep with Those Who Weep


Empathy is the starting point for relating to the experiences of others. Centuries before Brené Brown ever published her first book, the apostle Paul gave the most succinct description of empathy that’s ever existed: “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:15 esv). Paul commands us to enter the experiences of others, to see the world from their perspective, to adopt their feelings and attitudes about their unique situation.


Unless you’re a natural empath, this skill takes time and effort. Most of us (myself included!) are not great at immediately feeling the experiences of others. I can get there on a mental level, but I’ve had to work at expanding my emotional capacity for others. In fact, this is something I pray about and ask the Holy Spirit for.


Make Peace with Awkward


Often, in a season of suffering or waiting, there’s no finish line in sight. Your loved one doesn’t know when—or if—they will find relief. This puts you in an awkward position. Many times, as they pour out their heart about another failed relationship, failed pregnancy, or delayed work dream, you won’t know what to say. You will so badly want to fix it or offer the perfect piece of advice.


But sometimes, our feeble attempts to smooth over the awkwardness are like putting a Band-Aid on a bullet hole. It’s not going to help, and, in some cases, it can be inappropriate and hurtful.

Rachel Miller author quote: Give yourself permission to not have all the answers.


Instead of filling the air with empty words, embrace the awkward silence. When these moments arise, you’re going to take the pressure off and simply say: “I don’t know what to say, but I am here with you.” Give yourself permission to not have answers. Give your friend the gift of sitting right next to them so they don’t have to face their confusion alone.


Be Curious


Cultivate curiosity about your friends’ experiences. Think of yourself as a miner, exploring the dark and deep parts of life to find gold. Curious people are learners. Curious people ask lots of questions. Let your loved one teach you what she (or he) needs during this season.


Here are a few questions to get you started:


  • How does it feel to live with this difficulty?

  • What are you learning about yourself?

  • What are you learning about God?

  • How can I support you better during this season?


Pro tip: The best conversation-starting questions begin with “what” or “how.” If I ask my friend, “Do you feel sad today?” they’ll give me a simplified “yes” or “no” answer. But if I ask, “What’s on your mind today?” it’s like giving them a key to a house, where they get to act as tour guide, opening new doors of insight.


Listen


A listening ear is rare in our rushed, distracted, and fragmented world. In his book Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “The first service one owes to others in the fellowship consists in listening to them. Just as love to God begins with listening to his Word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them.” Love is patient. Love makes space for the cares and concerns of others.


When done right, listening is an exhausting activity. It’s work, and a lot of the time, it is all the effort your friend needs from you. Active listening is putting your device away, screen down. It’s turning your body toward your friend, looking them in the eye, and leaning in. It’s mirroring their facial expressions.


By listening to our friends who are hurting, we receive the honor of being the body of Christ to them—the living, breathing example of love who is always ready to hold audience with those who need to be heard.


Be a Companion, Not a Counselor


Companion comes from two Latin words: com, meaning “together,” and panis, meaning “bread.” It was used in Old French to describe “one who breaks bread with another.”


Does this mean you ought to regularly supply your sad friends with delicious carbs? Absolutely.


Also, being a companion simply means being with. Give your friends more time and fewer tips, less counsel, and more companionship. Be with, don’t fix. Your spouse or friend or group of young ladies you’re mentoring are not projects. They crave your presence.


Of course, advice and solutions have their time and place. If you’d like to set them up with a friend or recommend a book or refer them to a doctor, ask permission before offering advice. Ask, “Are you open to hearing an idea I have?”


But what your loved one needs more than anything else is the gift of knowing they’re not alone. They need to know you’re going to be there when they are crying tears of heartache or processing more bad news or getting out of bed to face another day to try, try again.


Don’t Take the Spiritual Bypass


Spiritual bypassing is a way of coping with pain by minimizing it, beating around the bush, or sweeping it under the rug (or any other analogy involving plants or household chores).


As a friend, we can make the same mistake of spiritually bypassing the pain of our friends living with unmet longing. But when it comes to hard moments in life, you can’t go under it. You can’t go over it. You’ve got to go through it.


Rachel Miller Author Quote What is Spiritual Bypassing?

Here are a few examples of what it looks like to take the “spiritual bypass:”

  • Avoiding responsibility by saying, “I’ll pray about it” when we have no intention of praying or acting.

  • Using false logic to “explain” suffering, like saying, “God must have needed another little angel” to someone who’s lost a child.

  • Skipping the stages of grief to try to appear more spiritual or in control.

  • Sharing a tough theological truth or scripture when someone isn’t ready to hear it.

Now, I’m not saying you shouldn’t share Scripture with your hurting friend. By no means! But exercise discernment when deciding what page of your Bible to flip to (and deciding when it’s right to challenge them with truth). Don’t make your friend ascend to your spiritual mountaintop when she can’t pick herself off the floor.


Here are a few verses that are helpful to share in a moment of suffering:

  • Jesus wept.” (John 11:35 esv)

  • “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” (Ps. 34:18).

  • “Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted. The troubles of my heart are enlarged; bring me out of my distresses.” (Ps. 25:16–17 esv)

  • “You have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your book?” (Ps. 56:8 esv)

  • “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.” (Isa. 43:2)

  • “[Jesus] was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.” (Isa. 53:3)

  • “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Rev. 21:4)

  • “The Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Deut. 31:6)


Just Show Up


I am writing this section for myself. Too often, I choose my schedule and plans over the sadness and hurt and needs of my friends. If you’re like me, I bet the drift has been slow and unintentional. You’re not trying to ignore your friends. You’ve just got a lot going on!


If we want to live a life of hospitality, of presence, of community with others, we must simplify our time and activities and create margin—the sacred space of free time in between activities and commitments—that allows us to simply show up.


Showing up looks like driving to the hospital and being the first one to greet your friend after surgery. It’s sitting with your roommate during her 2 a.m. mental breakdown and holding her hand to help her feel safe. It’s noticing a pile of laundry at your sick friend’s place and starting a load. Don’t ask. Just do it. (When they beg you to stop, send them a funny cat video to distract them, and keep folding.)


Showing up requires us to be a little bold. Invite yourself over. Pay attention and discern when you need to push through the “I’m fines” and go deeper. Showing up is imitating Jesus, who left his throne and his comfort and stepped down to this weary, broken world to walk and eat and laugh among us. Be like Christ. Just show up.


Being a Good Friend Is Something You Practice


Let’s be honest—suffering and grief are absurd human experiences. No one really knows how to do it well. But the important part is that you do it. I have messed up countless times in being a good friend by doing the exact opposite of what I’ve been writing about. Far too often, I have tried to fix people, I have failed to show up, I have blessed my hurting friends with my infinite wisdom (eyeroll) instead of my intimate presence.


Be kind to yourself as you navigate this unknown terrain. Like any adventure worth taking, it’s going to have a few bumps in the road, a few mistakes, a few hiccups. We live in a world where everyone wants to be the hero. We need more sidekicks—so let’s double down on loving those who need us.

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