By John Dale
Have you been through a really rough time and someone said something to you with good intentions but their words actually made it worse? Or maybe you’re the one attempting to provide comfort to someone who’s hurting and it wasn’t very helpful?
One of the many profound experiences I’ve had in my lifetime was serving as a volunteer hospital chaplain. God certainly hangs out in hospitals as it’s one of the few places where a baby can be born and someone can die– all within a matter of minutes, in the same building. During our chaplain training, they emphasized the importance of not “singing songs to a heavy heart.” In fact, we were required to read Don’t Sing Songs to a Heavy Heart: How to Relate to Those Who Are Suffering by Dr. Kenneth Haugk. The title comes from Proverbs 25:20, “Like one who takes away a garment on a cold day, or like vinegar poured on a wound, is one who sings songs to a heavy heart.” It’s a very informative book and I highly recommend it.
There’s a chapter in the book called Words That Hurt, Not Heal, that was helpful as I interacted with patients and families in the hospital and it has enabled me to walk more effectively alongside folks in our REBOOT community. Some of the common things said are: “I know how you feel”, “At least he’s not suffering anymore”, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”, “You should/shouldn’t …”, “It’s God’s will”, and my all time favorite “God doesn’t give you any more than you can handle.” We may believe these things to be true and some may even be rooted in scripture (although it can sometimes be a stretch), but that doesn’t mean they’re appropriate or helpful to say in the moment. Even though we may relate from a similar experience and really want to help, we don’t know exactly how they’re feeling or what other layers of pain are present.
I’m writing this article coming out of a really tough few weeks dealing with my infant son’s health issues. He was recently diagnosed with sagittal craniosynostosis, which is where the two plates on the top of his skull grew together prematurely and, as a result, caused his head and face to be a bit malformed and could restrict future growth of his brain. Even though the case was considered moderate, the care team at the nearby children’s hospital was convinced that he needed surgery to fix the issue. Due to his age, he would need the more invasive craniotomy and a few days in the hospital afterward. Weighing the options and risks, my wife and I decided to go ahead with the procedure.
We asked good questions ahead of time and were able to talk to a few parents who had gone through the same procedure with their kids. They all said that it would be much harder on the parents than their child and they were right. The time spent making the decision, getting prepared for the hospital stay, handing our kid over to a stranger as they went into the operating room, being at their bedside for the days following in intensive care and then dealing with the recovery once we got home have been a lot, to say the least. Fortunately, both my wife and I have dealt with many hard things in the past so it wasn’t foreign to us. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t deeply impactful.
For me, a few old scars dealing with head trauma, that apparently are still tender, came to the surface. One was of a good friend in high school that died in a car wreck when we were 17yrs old. I went to the hospital to be with his mom and see him for the last time and distinctly remember the condition of his head and face. They were severely bruised and swollen. A few days before the accident someone had visited our VoTech class to promote organ donation. Later that day we went back to his house and signed the back of each other’s drivers licenses so we would become donors if anything ever happened to us. Out of that tragedy, he gave life to many others.
Another scar that I was reminded of was while working for my county’s fire department, we responded to a rollover motor vehicle accident. Two children who were unrestrained in the back seat were ejected from the car. I was on the team that had to extract the parents from the front seat while our medics worked on the kids on the side of the road. Even though we lifeflighted the kids out from a nearby field, I learned later that one of them didn’t make it due to the severe head trauma.
After my son’s surgery, seeing him in the intensive care unit hooked up to several monitors and IV lines and his head and eyes swollen and bruised, unable to see, was a lot to handle. But, I’m a pro at staying calm during tough situations. These and other things that I experienced with him in the hospital just got stuffed down. I had been doing my best to stay strong for my family the days leading up to, during and after the surgery and now that we’re finally coming up out of the valley, the things I packed away are now starting to spill out. I’m finding I have no choice but to feel the feels.
If someone would have made the mistake of “singing a song to my heavy heart” in some of those really hard moments, it would not have gone well. I don’t get angry very easily anymore but for that I would have made an exception. Fortunately, the people who we have in our lives are amazing and did a great job of being supportive.
Here are some things I’d like to pass along that may be helpful:
If you’re going through really hard stuff at the moment and a Christian has said something to you that wasn’t actually helpful and has possibly made things worse, I’m truly sorry. We’re human, prone to making mistakes and don’t always get the “loving our neighbors” thing right. However, that doesn’t excuse us from making amends and getting better tools so it doesn’t happen again. There is a community of people that are eager to walk with you through this tough part of your journey and you can find them by attending a REBOOT Recovery course. Lastly, we have a God that understands suffering because of what his son Jesus went through on earth and although he didn’t cause our pain, he’s right there with us in it. That has been a source of comfort for me over the years.
If you’re walking with someone who is hurting, here are some practical things from the book that are actually beneficial in easing pain. The first is genuine prayer and that doesn’t mean saying “you’re in my thoughts and prayers (gag).” It means being sincere and specific about when and how you will pray, i.e “I thought of you three time times today and each time I prayed that God would bring you comfort.” Another helpful thing is simply showing up. That can look different depending on the situation and what the person needs. You’ll want to take the initiative and at the same time be careful not to add to the burden they’re already carrying. Similar to showing up is providing practical help like: providing or preparing meals, caring for children, doing chores or running errands. Finally, please please please steer clear of “platitudes, cliches and other expressions that hurt rather than heal, even though you say them with the kindest of intentions.”