I have been the recipient of a great deal of compassion lately – openhearted, open-armed, soul-enriching compassion. I am deeply blessed.
It brings to mind the simple words my Dad used to say almost every time we left the house. “Be kind,” he said, and we knew that if we did nothing else but offer someone kindness that day, then we had been successful in Dad’s eyes.
There have been a LOT of successful people in my life lately.
Not only have I been comforted and encouraged by kindness, I have been educated by it. Here are my thoughts, based on what I’ve witnessed, about how to offer compassion to people you care about who are going through tough times.
1. Create safety. The most important thing you can do is offer the person a safe place to fall apart. Be trustworthy, be present, be available, and be soft. Give them the warmth of your touch, the comfort of your words, and the gift of your listening.
2. Refrain from offering advice until you know they’re strong enough to receive it (and/or they’ve asked for it). When a person is feeling vulnerable and broken, unsolicited advice can make them feel like they’ve failed or they’re not as good as you are at handling difficult times. Your advice may be valuable, but don’t offer it if it will make them feel small.
3. Withhold judgement. Nobody who’s going through a difficult journey wants to be judged for their weakness, their tears, their messy home, or their indecisiveness. Bite your tongue even if you think they’re being foolish or immature. Let them be weak if they need to be weak. There will be time for strength later.
4. Be an active listener. Let the person suffering do most of the talking and be fully present for what they are saying. In the middle of the struggle, there is nothing quite as powerful as knowing that you are heard and seen. Don’t try to fill the silences with platitudes or solutions. Leave as much space as they need to share their stories and work through what they need someone to hear.
5. Offer empathy, not sympathy. Empathy lets a person know they’re not alone, sympathy leaves them feeling inferior. Empathy builds bridges, sympathy builds walls. People who offer sympathy (eg. “poor you”) instead of empathy are usually doing it because they feel some need to elevate themselves above the other person.
6. Share your stories to make them feel less alone, but don’t overshadow their stories. Stories are really important in times of grief or stress, but the most important stories that need to be shared at that time are the ones that belong to the person going through the trouble. Offer your own stories in a respectable manner, but only after they’ve had a chance to share theirs.
7. Do not pretend to know EXACTLY what they’re going through. You can’t possibly know just what they’re experiencing because you are a different person carrying different baggage. You may have been on a similar path and felt similar pain (and that’s worth sharing), but each person’s path is his/her own. Let them describe what they’re going through rather than assuming you know.
8. Let them cry. Cry with them if that is what emerges. Don’t try to end their grief or fix their pain. Sit with them in the middle of that field of grief and just let what is be what it needs to be. Nobody can take a shortcut through pain, so don’t pretend you’ve found one. Watching a loved one cry feels excruciating, and you really, really want to fix it for them, but to show them the kind of love they need, you need to let the tears flow and simply bear witness.
9. Let them know that they are courageous, even if their courage only shows up in very small ways. When the road is hard, just putting one foot in front of another takes courage. Sometimes getting out of bed in the morning takes courage. Help them discover their own basketful of courage stories – memories of the times when they have shown courage that will help them rise to the challenges ahead.
10. Just love them. Plain and simple. Bring them supper, buy them chai latte, babysit their kids, take them out to a movie, show up to help them serve the food at the funeral they’ve been dreading, sit with them at the hospital, buy them toilet paper when you’re sure they haven’t had a moment to go shopping, drop love notes in their mailbox… do whatever it takes to let them know they are surrounded by love.