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Do You Know How to Be Present Amid Someone’s Suffering?

I was speaking with a friend tonight about the discomfort some people have in being present for and/or knowing what to say when someone is diagnosed with a life-challenging illness. What happens is that folks sometimes disappear, or are inclined not to step up and be of support. It’s not because they don’t care, but more likely because they were never taught how to deal with loss and change. They might imagine themselves in that situation and it is too immense to consider, so they practice cognitive dissonance. They may also rationalize the someone else will volunteer their time and energy, so they don’t need to.

Such is the case with my friend who is facing a cancer diagnosis and now medically invasive treatment for it. Many of her friends have offered their assistance as they can, which requires accompanying her to chemo which she refers to as “IV meds,” as well as staying overnight afterward in case she has side effects. She notes that their company helps reduce understandable anxiety. Some of her friends offer various alternative or holistic healing modalities gratis since they would not be covered by her insurance. Some drive her to run errands or to follow up appointments since her vision has become blurry. Others take her to pleasurable activities. As unaccustomed as she is to being dependent and on the receiving end of care, this is quite a stretch for her. Still she wishes that a few who have been conspicuously absent would tell her the reasons why they seem to have ‘ghosted’. She wonders whether to approach them or simply let it go and not take it personally.

As someone who has been on all ends of the caregiving spectrum; from therapist to family caregiver, from well spouse to a patient myself, I know all too directly what dynamics are at play. There have been times when I have been grateful that people have offered their care and others when I have felt miffed, bordering on resentment when they haven’t. Blessedly, those times are rare.

When I’m not sure what to say, I let the person know and ask if I can just sit with them either in person or over the phone. I sometimes ask what they need by way of support…is it physical, emotional, spiritual? Do they just need to cry? Do they need to be held? Do they need transportation or someone to run errands? Do they need a home cooked meal? Do they want to go do something fun to get out of the house? Do they want someone to pray with them? These are the kinds of questions I would want to be asked if I was in that situation.

I polled friends about their take on the topic and the responses were encouraging and could be of benefit to readers.

If you offer your presence that may be all they want. It is best to ask the questions as you show here.”

“What I don’t like on the receiving end is when someone smothers me with their concern, caring, sadness. What I love is when someone holds a strong energetic container that empowers me in a healing process.”

“Some folks are challenged in stepping up when that causes them to face their own mortality. I usually go with “how can I help you, and if you aren’t sure know, when you do know please let me know, meanwhile, may I hang out with you?”, using words appropriate to that person / situation etc.”

“I have severe health challenges that will lead eventually to my demise. I think the best thing that was ever said to me over it was by my doctor: “Lady, I don’t know how you’re doing it, but you surviving has been the highlight of my career. Just keep doing what you’re doing.”  I think though, that I’d love it if occasionally someone would ask my husband what they could do for him to help him in being my caregiver.”

“I am so happy at times, yet equally stressed at times that I only volunteer what I can. I happen to really need help too. It’s an interesting dynamic that has taught me boundaries and to drop what I’m doing and jump in to help.”

 “Instead of saying, “I’m sorry for your loss” to a friend who’s lost a loved one, here are some better alternatives:

1. I’m sorry you’re suffering right now, but I’m here with you and willing to help any way I can. Is there anything you need right now?

2. I’m sorry for whatever challenges might lie ahead for you, but I’m here and willing to help. Would it be okay if I call next week just to check in with you?

3. Please accept my deepest condolences. I can’t imagine what you must be going through right now, but I know enough about grief to know that it can be very challenging. Don’t hesitate to call me if there’s anything I can do to help.

4. I’m so sorry to hear about _____. I’m sure you’re going to miss him/her terribly. How are you holding up?

5. I know there’s nothing I can say right now to make things better, but I also know that having someone to talk to at times like this is really important, so don’t hesitate to call me whenever you need to.

“I like to say: ” Can I give you a hug?” and then tell them that you are available to help (in whatever way you are able) Most of the time, people just appreciate feeling that you care. They might be feeling overwhelmed by all the attention and giving initially but it is important to stay in touch, to check in with them, even after some time has passed, just to let them know that they are not forgotten.”

Do You Know How to Be Present Amid Someone’s Suffering?

Edie Weinstein, MSW, LSW

Edie Weinstein, MSW, LSW is a journalist and interviewer, licensed social worker, interfaith minister, radio host and best-selling author.

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APA Reference
Weinstein, E. (2018). Do You Know How to Be Present Amid Someone’s Suffering?. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 4, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 7 Jun 2017)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.