When Someone You Love is Suffering

by Colleen Onders

Suffering is personal. It is not predictable. Because suffering has no set timeline, it can be an incredibly isolating experience. It would be great if everyone at the age of 25 experienced the same type of heartbreak so we could all relate, but that’s simply not how suffering works.  While you’re suffering heartbreak at 25, you may have a friend from college who recently got engaged, and a friend who has just decided to move to Spain for a year—and to top it all off, you just saw on Facebook that your junior prom date is expecting his second child with this beautiful wife. And there you are, feeling completely alone.

Suffering can look like a million different things. Everyone will walk through seasons of rejection, grief, and loneliness. There is no perfect way to avoid these human experiences and emotions. While someone else may have walked through a similar challenge, it is impossible for anyone else on earth to completely understand your experience. This can make knowing how to walk alongside a friend a difficult challenge.

When you have a friend who is experiencing significant grief or suffering, it is not easy to know how to respond. If you are like me, when someone tells you about their hard stuff, you just want to fix it. I want to put the pieces of their life back together, encourage them, tell them a joke, or go out for coffee like normal. I want to tell them how all of this can be positive in some way, or will be positive in some way in the future. I want to tell them the boy who broke their heart is dumb; that they dodged a bullet and we can thank God for his goodness. I want to tend to their bruises, telling them to ice 20 minutes on, 20 minutes off, and raise it above their heart for quick healing. I want to sew them back together and prop them back up. I want to heal and fix and take away the pain. It hurts too much for me, too.

A few years ago, a close friend called me because her sister was sick. We didn’t realize it, but at that very moment, she was dying. It happened so quickly. It was horrible and overwhelming and sad. And, obviously, no one knows what to do or say in this kind of moment. I am positive I did about a million things wrong. I am too scared to ask her if she has memories of the dumb things I said or did or suggested. I am too proud and too embarrassed of what I may have done in the moments that followed the phone call. She is too kind to tell me she remembers any of this. Mostly, what I can remember of the weeks that followed was my own incredible sadness and the overwhelming feeling of helplessness. What I know about walking with friends through suffering comes from fumbling and tripping my way through this time in my life. Mostly, I just know that it will feel like you do not know what to do, because what can you do in these moments? We are not created to experience them, so how could we know how to provide comfort in such depths of pain? I have learned that I am not able to fix the problem or comfort all of their suffering. I want to—I desperately want to—but I cannot. So, I look to Jesus for wisdom on how to walk next to them.

I am thankful the Bible is filled with stories of sickness, loss, pain, wandering, groaning, and crying. From those moments come the healing, comforting, and delivering power of God. On earth sometimes, in heaven always. We see David, hiding for his life in Judah, reaching out to God in his desperate writing of the Psalms. We see Paul writing while he is in chains, locked in a jail cell for most of his adult life. We see the Isrealites groaning to God while walking through the wilderness for a generation, not knowing or understanding the point of their wandering. God protects David’s life and continues to make him a strong leader. Paul’s life is hard, but God remains faithful to use him over and over again for centuries. God guides the Israelites to the Promised Land and begins to show them the meaning of their wandering. With each story of suffering, we see God walk with his people through the wilderness, never abandoning them. With each story of suffering there is a story of hope and redemption. 

Meet Them Where They Are 

Read Luke 24:13-25

When I think about walking through a season of suffering with someone I love, I think of Jesus’ close friends after he was crucified. They all have different experiences with his death. Not only was their dear friend wrongfully murdered in such a public and horrifying way, but their expectations had been destroyed, too. They had hoped this man would be a king; that he would change everything. They misunderstood the plan. They were left grieving the death of Jesus and the future they envisioned for themselves.

There are two specific friends of Jesus in Luke 24 that stand out to me. Clearly, they are heartbroken about the death of Jesus. It has been three days since Jesus’ death and they want out of the city. It seems to be all anyone in Jerusalem is talking about. Major news. There is no escape to process their emotions. They need out, so they walk away from the Holy City toward Emmaus. As they are walking, Jesus—who had risen from the dead (spoiler alert!)—begins to walk alongside them. But his friends do not recognize him. Jesus walks with them, asking them how they feel. The men share with him, honestly, about the death of their friend. Their sadness is visible on their faces and in their tones. They share their disappointment and confusion about what has happened. How overwhelming it is in Jerusalem. How it is all anyone is talking about. Their spirits are crushed. 

It is a simple thing, to walk with them out of the city. To ask them about their feelings. It really is that simple. But it can also be really, really hard. When you have a friend walking through the wilderness, your job is to walk alongside them as best you can. Your job is to meet them where they are. God met Elijah in a cave when he wanted to die (1 Kings 19:4-13). He met Moses in a field (Exodus 3:2-3). He met Jonah in the belly of a whale (Jonah 2). Meet your friend where they are and walk with them. Accept the fact that you will not do this perfectly, and accept that it will be uncomfortable for you. You do not have to understand the suffering of your friend to be with them while they experience it. Jesus drew near to his friends on their sorrowful walk. We can do the same when our friends are in a challenging season.

Speak Truth and Hope

Read Luke 24:25-27

While Jesus was walking with his friends, he listened to their stories and experiences. Eventually, he speaks. Really, he just reminds the men of things they already know. He recounts Scripture, prophecy that aligns with the death of their great friend. He begins to walk them through how the entirety of God’s creation pointed to this moment they just experienced. He opens their eyes to how their friend is the one to restore Israel. That hope is not lost. That their expectations were not completely off base. With Jesus’ direction, they are able to see the death of their friend for what it is—not just the death of a loved one, but the redemption of their souls and the invitation to a relationship with God that never ends. This painful death turns out to be their ultimate source of forgiveness and comfort. Jesus speaks hope into their sorrow. He helps them take a step back from their grief and look at their experience through God’s lens. 

If you have ever been hiking up a mountain, a good, long hike up a big mountain, you know that momentary feeling of desperation about ¾ of the way up. It starts great. You park your car at the trailhead and look up. Maybe you can see the peak. It looks awesome. Far away but not that far. Definitely doable. You will make it there by lunch, for sure. So you start. You feel excited, healthy, motivated. The hike starts in the trees. You are surrounded by them, big and beautiful. You walk. Time passes and eventually that uphill starts to burn. Your heart is beating fast, you're not feeling as confident about how “in shape” you are. The trees that at one time were beautiful gifts of shade are now just in the way. They make it impossible for you to gauge how close you are to the peak, to the end of this wretched trail. When you are in the trees, moving slowly uphill, they are all you can see. It is impossible to see the finish line. You forget there even is a finish line. But you saw it at the start; you could see it from the parking lot. You know it is there. Sometimes you need someone else to remind you the forest does not last forever. Somewhere, the trees break and the skyline is clear and big and open. And you are moving towards it, slowly, but surely.

Sometimes we need someone else to remind us of the hope we know. When your friend is walking in the valley, remind them that Jesus walked in the valley, too. Remind them the valley does not last forever, heaven is coming, and healing is real. Jesus sees them and has not abandoned them. This is your job.  

Pray 

Read Luke 24:35

The men’s eyes are opened as Jesus explains these things to them. They can’t believe what they are hearing from this stranger. They invite him to eat with them. Jesus blesses the bread, he prays, and in that moment the men’s eyes are opened. They can finally see they are sitting with their beloved friend Jesus. Suddenly, Jesus vanishes from their sight. The men sit in awe, beaming with excitement.

Jesus prays and there is revelation! Something that can only come from God. Jesus’ communion with the Father comforted grief and restored hope.

As I walked (stumbled, really) through the valley with my friend, I remember clinging to Jesus. The weeks and months following the death of her sister were brutal. I was pleading with God in my desperation and sadness. I remember praying for her and her family, for healing and comfort, for peace and hope. I prayed with her out loud and I prayed on my own, without her ever knowing. I sent her text messages of my appeals to God and voice memos of my prayers over her. I was so completely at a loss for what to do. There was nothing for me to do, so I prayed. And I came to this realization about prayer: it is the most incredible gift that God gives while we are on earth. We can communicate with him, plead with him, and praise him all the time if we want to. We have this incredible power to intercede on behalf of the people we love.

When you are walking with your friend through a difficult season, there is not a lot that you can do. But prayer has the power to change things. It can fix what you cannot. It can comfort what you cannot. It is more powerful and more beneficial than anything you can do on your own.

When your friend is going through a difficult season, meet them where they are, speak truth and hope, and pray for them. Stumbling through the wilderness with your friend is hard, uncomfortable work. But over and over again we see the wilderness is where God meets his people. Being together in suffering creates depth in our relationships with each other and depth with our relationships with God. One day we will be in paradise with the Lord. Continue to walk through the valleys with your friends until that day.

Image credit: Emilee Carpenter

About Colleen Onders

Colleen is a Social Worker at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital working on the inpatient psychiatric unit, focusing on crisis care for mental and behavioral health in children. She loves camping and hiking and feels the grace of God is best experienced outside.
Find Colleen Onders Here »
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