“Sitting silently beside a friend who is hurting may be the best gift we can give.” ~Unknown
There’s a time for words and a time for silence. Thankfully, when I went through one of the darkest periods of my life, I had friends who knew what time it was.
When things go well, your friends don’t usually need to show up in silence. But everything changes when you go through a season of intense pain and disappointment. I know this from firsthand experience.
My life took a drastic turn for the worse when the first ride of the season on our motorcycle ended abruptly. A driver who should have stopped and waited turned left onto the highway, right in front of us. In that moment, we met a world of hurt.
After the initial crash, which I barely survived, I experienced incredible peace and gratitude. I was in a great deal of pain, but I found myself grateful for my family, the excellent care I was receiving, and hope for a better future.
In the early days of repair and recovery, I appreciated the friends and family who came to visit. I enjoyed hearing their news and talking about my journey. I read, with gratitude, the cards that were filled with words of encouragement and love.
But I also appreciated the times when words were not spoken. My true friends would watch me fall asleep in the middle of a conversation and not be bothered. They knew I needed the rest and were okay sitting in silence.
When Silence Meant the Most
At the four-month point of my recovery, the pain and loss took a turn for the worse. An infection in my leg that was supposed to be killed two months earlier was alive and well. It resulted in an unexpected re-admittance to the hospital and a painful fourth surgery.
After that fourth surgery, the reality of my situation started to sink in. My body would never be the same again. The next marathon I was planning to run would never see me at the starting line. The door into a brand new work opportunity that opened up just before the accident was slammed shut.
As the losses mounted, my infected leg throbbed under the pain of reconstruction. I slipped into depression and struggled to find relief physically and emotionally. The pain medicine took the edge off the physical pain but the emotional pain was relentless.
At one particular low point in the hospital bed, my wife and two life-long friends sat with me. In the void of silence, something powerful happened. I started to cry shallow tears at first, but then guttural sobs that came from the deep pain I was feeling.
At that point in my hurt, I would have snapped had someone told me, “It will be okay. Hang in there. You’ll get through this.” Those words would have felt like patronizing pity and been no comfort at all.
What I was given in the silence was the best gift I could have received. I wasn’t out of the woods, but I had moved ever so slightly in the direction of healing and being present with my pain and struggle.
I had a similar experience two days later in the same hospital room. Another dear friend came to visit, not with answers or platitudes, but with support and a willingness to sit in silence. He received my tears in silence without feeling awkward and left having given me a gift.
Life Lessons on How to Help a Hurting Friend
Through my experience with silence, I harvested several takeaways. I apply these lessons to myself and give them to you as you seek to help those in your life who hurt.
Human Companionship Helps Carry the Pain
When you go through a painful experience, part of the load only you can carry. Part of the load, however, can be shared by companions who travel with you. My friends drove me around, shoveled my driveway, looked after my work, and brought me the snacks I really enjoyed. But they also helped me carry my pain.
Carrying the pain of another can be a challenging task, but when it happens, it’s like a cup of cold water on a hot day. When my friends sat with me in silence while I hurt physically and emotionally, they provided reassurance and support so I would keep going and not lose hope.
Well-Placed Words Can Be a Comforting Distraction
Sometimes we use words because we’re uncomfortable with silence. Sometimes we use words because we’re uncomfortable with pain and suffering. But words offered at the right time and in the right way can also be life giving.
The words I appreciated when in pain were the stories of life and experiences in the outside world. I enjoyed hearing about the holidays taken to warm places, babies being born, and the jokes being told.
The stories became a comforting distraction from the pain and difficulty I was experiencing. There were times when I wasn’t in the mood for their stories, but if that was the case, I would just simply tell them and they would revert to silence.
Friends Give Us Strength to Hold Our “Why?”
When I carried an overwhelming load of loss and grief, I asked “Why?” Asking “Why?” is a natural response to loss. The problem comes when we demand an answer and never get to a place of accepting our situation.
The friends who helped me while I was asking “Why?” were the ones who didn’t try to answer the question but sat in silence and allowed the question to be the elephant in the room.
I felt strength when my friends held “Why?” with me without needing an answer or making me feel bad for asking.
Friends Remind Us We’re Not Alone
Online social networks meet a certain need for connection, but when we’re in pain, they’re not enough. You need warm-blooded people to be present with you when you hurt. I certainly did. Having friends like or comment on my Facebook status helped, but it wasn’t enough.
The presence of a true friend who is able to sit in silence meets the human need for connection and affects us more than we know. You know it matters because when you are alone for too long, depression and despair starts to set in.
Just By Being Present, Friends Might Be Doing Enough
When I was in pain the physiotherapist forced me to get out of bed the day after surgery, I dreaded it. I knew I needed to get moving again, but the pain and struggle was intense. What helped was a friend or family member who walked in silence beside or behind me.
My friends saw my pain and struggle and couldn’t take it away. What they could do was be present, and when they did, made my life just a little easier to endure.
Who in your life is in a world of hurt? Who could you help, not with words, but with your presence?
If you don’t have the right words, don’t worry. Your presence and willingness to sit in the silence may be the best gift you could give your friend.