I looked up with groggy eyes, making out the face of an acquaintance I had attended school with. He was apologizing for not yet having visited me in the hospital during my first few weeks but I could tell he wanted to get the juicy details of my accident. He looked around and waited until others in the room were out of earshot before leaning over and curiously asking, “Dude, were you drunk driving?” With the ventilator restricting my ability to talk, I tried to muster the strength to shake my head no. I don’t remember one thing about the rest of the visit, let alone the day, aside from the panicked thoughts rolling around in my head. Was this assumed by everyone? Had the doctors been unable to check my blood to confirm sobriety? I stared at the ceiling for hours into the night wondering if this was the prevailing belief of everyone filtering through my room over the past few weeks. With this simple question, I felt dozens of fingers pointing at me saying, “This is your fault.”
One of the most common questions I get asked when I speak is, “How can we be there for others in need?” I frequently get emails starting with “My friend just got in an accident… How can I help?” We all have people around us who need us. The neighbor who just got the cancer diagnosis. The family member given months to live. The freak accident, leaving us with our hands in the air, feeling helpless, not even knowing where to start.
I’ve learned a lot through Job’s story of suffering, recorded in the Bible. Job suffers immensely, with his family being taken along with his wealth and his health. While his friends are initially by his side, they quickly turn into advice givers and blame shifters, telling him all the reasons why he may be suffering and giving unsolicited advice on how to handle it instead of actually helping. These are great examples of what not to do. But there are plenty more.
Based off what I have experienced personally, as well as the stories of others, here are my top five things not to do. (Seriously…don’t do this stuff.)
• Be advice givers. “You really need to…” “You really should try to…” “If I were you I would…” Just stop.
• Say, “I know exactly how you feel.” One lady came up to me and told me how sorry she was and how she knows exactly what it’s like to be confined to a wheelchair. She broke her leg and couldn’t stand being in one herself for three entire weeks. She wished me a good day and walked away. Thanks for your “empathy.”
• Try to find the root of the problem. If you want to be the theological expert of suffering, don’t externally process with the one who is in the midst of the fire like the guy at the hospital questioning my sobriety did. Similarly, a woman I know lost her husband unexpectedly to a heart attack and someone decided to proclaim, “Well he was getting pretty old, wasn’t he?”
Sometimes putting your foot in your mouth would be best for everyone.
• Be a voyeur. The excessive observers who check in to get details, get a story, or get the latest interesting update for no reason other than knowing details, having a story, or knowing the latest interesting update is exhausting for the person getting asked and often comes off as very disingenuous. It’s not a coincidence that I haven’t spoken with the inquiring hospital guy in years.
• Try to sound envious: “Wow, your chair is so cool! That must be really fun, just being able to drive with your mouth.” “You’re around so many women. I would love to spend a day in your shoes.” And when many generous people helped out my family via the gift of food: “I wish someone brought me all this food. This is a nice gig you’ve got going on here!” Unless you genuinely want to switch spots, don’t act envious.
Back to Job’s friends, they didn’t always suck. Actually, when suffering first onset, they were rock solid friends (see Job 2:11-13). I’ve experienced many incredibly helpful gestures from people as well. Which brings me to my list of do’s…
• Shut up and just be there. Realize that you cannot fix the issue. Instead of giving advice, trying to pry out details, or flirting with the line of blame shifting, just be there as someone to listen and spend time with. Practicing the presence of just being there may be more effective than anything else.
• Treat them the same. Friends that realize I’m the same Ryan from five years ago are a whole lot easier to be around than those who pity me or awkwardly stare at the floor. Sometimes I feel like Gary Bertier (left), the star football player in Remember the Titans. He sat in his hospital bed after a horrific accident and was surrounded by his teammates talking about the upcoming football game. The coach stops the party providing the ultimate buzz kill: “You know what, we don’t need to talk about football right now, Gary. This would be a good time for reflection…” Gary cuts him off, “Coach, I’m hurt, I ain’t dead.”
• Ask what you can pray for. I think there’s a reason Jesus asked the blind man, “What do you want me to do for you?” (Mark 10:51) There is something powerful about speaking out what we want or need prayer for. But if you ask, actually do it. And follow-up.
• Bring food. For any family dealing with sickness or loss, a meal prepared or purchased by someone else saves time, means a lot, and tastes great (hopefully). Plus, it gives you an opportunity to give the person space by dropping it off with a note. Even if you’re awkward, you can pull this one off.
Thanks to those that have been a part of the “do” list. There have been many of you. Now go do the same for others.
Contact info: Ryan.S.Atkins@Gmail.com
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