What Not to Say When a Friend Suffers

The capacity to love and the capacity to endure pain are connected. If I can’t enter pain, I can’t love others when they are vulnerable. What do I do when others are vulnerable?

You are going along in life and everything’s good. Suddenly trauma, crisis, injury, or death comes crashing on someone close to you. They are hit with a truckload of pain.

What they do? Some people run. They do everything to avoid the pain. They hide in shame. They minimize or deny the impact of the event. Their whole goal is to not acknowledge the pain.

Then there are others who hang on to their pain. They exaggerate it or use it to draw attention to themselves. They wallow in self-pity. They acknowledge the pain, and they exploit it.

Neither of these two extremes will heal the hurt.

  • Hide the pain and reject it
  • Expose it to exploit it

If you are uncomfortable with pain, you may try to say something, perhaps unintentionally, to “fix” them. Then you don’t have to face their pain.

In Outlaw Christian by Jacqueline A. Bussie, she describes a Cultural Christian law that needs to be broken:

Law #4: Always speak in cliches about suffering and evil.

It’s tempting to use cliches or platitudes when you don’t know what to say or if you feel awkward about pain. What clichés or platitudes have you used?

  • Everything happens for a reason.
  • God is testing your faith.
  • Let go and let God.
  • It was meant to be.
  • God never gives you more than you can handle.

These phrases can be useful in the right context, but if given at the wrong time they can shut you down. What are we do to? There is an ancient Christian practice that is not used much today, but we need it. Lament.

“Lament is the biblical word-name for having it out with God.” Says Jacqueline A. Bussie in Outlaw Christian.

David in the Psalms was good at expressing sadness, brokenness and questioning. What is so beautiful about lament is that you can be honest and raw with God. The Psalms are full of examples of lament. You will notice a pattern.

  • Be present.
  • Be honest and name it.
  • Feel the pain.
  • Wrestle with it.
  • Return attention to God.
  • Remember God’s character and worship Him.

This is the hard road, the vulnerable process, that helps you move forward for yourself and others. What happens when somebody shares their pain with you? It’s normal to feel uncomfortable, to feel powerless and inadequate, but don’t let that stop you from entering pain. We can shut people down, close them out, and discourage them from being present in their pain. The main way we do this is by using snappy cliches about suffering and evil.

“We know showing love is about more than just finding the right words… When people we love are suffering, above all they want to be heard.” Outlaw Christian by Jacqueline A. Bussie


It seems we have the lost practice of lament in the Christian Church. I love the River Church in Fresno because they give people permission to be emotional in church. There people laugh and cry during worship. Is that okay? Can I go to church and sob? Church is a wonderful place when it’s safe to be open and honest.

What do you say when a friend suffers? There is no correct answer. What is more important is that you make them feel that it’s okay to talk about their pain. Even if all you say is, “I can see you are hurting. I’ll sit next to you while you hurt.”

©2017 Belinda Perez McDanel

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