Are You Hurtful When Trying To Be Helpful?

Unfortunately, I’m writing this post while our family is in the middle of a health challenge. My husband is facing a stage 4 pancreatic cancer diagnosis and it’s been a tough few weeks.  We are fortunate, however, because we have a tremendous team of family, friends, doctors and others, who are a great source of support.  In addition, we’ve been overwhelmed by the kindness and generosity of complete strangers.

The past few weeks have been a whirlwind as we’ve learned of my husband’s diagnosis, been in and out of the doctor’s office for scans, tests, and treatment, and now, are in the hospital for some unexpected complications. In the midst of all of this, I’m amazed at our community and the number of people who know exactly how to help support us in ways beyond what we could ever ask for. It’s made me think about all the ways I’ve attempted to help others in ways that, in retrospect, haven’t been all that helpful, and may have even been (unintentionally) hurtful in the midst of their pain.

The thoughts I’m listing below are the culmination of having read several books, coaching women for nearly two decades, and my own personal experiences witnessing incredible help the past few weeks. This list shares five things to consider avoiding in order to be sure your efforts to support others are helpful, not hurtful. While certainly not all inclusive, it’s a great starting place if you’re walking through a difficult season with people you love.

First, when someone is faced with a difficult time, avoid asking “How are you?” in an overly-cheerful way.  That approach can come across as if you don’t get the gravity of the situation they’re facing.  An alternative, asking, “How are you today?” or, “How are you this moment?” can feel much more comforting.  That alternative implies you understand that it’s a daily or even moment-by-moment challenge.

Second, avoid slapping the happy face Bandaid on a wound that is still bleeding.  In other words, when people share they are struggling, feeling anxious, worried, afraid, etc. do not respond with, “God won’t give you more than you can handle,” or, “At least it’s not as bad as…”  That is the polar-opposite of what is needed.

What anyone and everyone needs, always, is to have their feelings validated.  Simply put, give people permission to express and feel their feelings.  That might mean responding with something like, “I can completely understand how you’d feel that way,” or, “Of course you’d feel that way, I think anyone would feel the same.”  Your job is not to fix, cheer them up or provide unsolicited advice of what to do.  Instead, just listen and validate their feelings.  An occasional show of empathy – a statement as simple as, “I’m so sorry you’re suffering,” can do a world of good.

Third, leave the cheerleader at home.  When you bring out your pom-poms too early and overly celebrate the small victories or bits of good news, it shows that you don’t understand; celebrating too soon feels like failure to recognize the struggle is a marathon, and not a sprint. While optimistic, thankful, and certainly happy in the moment, it doesn’t mean you’ve crossed the finish line.  When others celebrate too soon, it can leave you feeling isolated and alone, as if they don’t understand the magnitude of what you’re going through.

Fourth, be thoughtful about your offer to help.  In times of crisis many people want to help.  I completely understand that feeling – the need to do something to help them feel supported, comforted and loved.  However, at first, they might not even know what they need.  If so, give them space and time in which to determine their actual needs and trust that they will communicate those when they are ready for help.

For example, in our case, side effects mean that my husband’s dietary plans are unpredictable.  Therefore, it’s too early for people to bring meals.  We don’t yet know what we need tomorrow, let alone the next few weeks.

If you’re a person of action and feel you must do SOMETHING, say a prayer – that God would provide comfort, support and whatever is needed, for every step of their journey. Also, pray that He would use every bit of their situation for good. Then be patient and know that in time, there will be significant ways you can help.

Last, but not least, in our world of instant communication, offer grace.  When facing a health-crisis you can be overwhelmed by people, emotions, and information.  Therefore, if you send a text, email, voice mail or phone call, don’t be offended if you don’t get a response.  You have no idea if they’re in the hospital, meeting with a doctor, waiting on an important call, or just too tired or foggy to be able to respond.

It is my hope that this list will help all of us, myself included, to ensure our impact matches our intention; to be helpful and not hurtful.  Ultimately, no matter how much practice it takes, I believe peoples’ motives are good and we are so thankful for each person who has reached out to us – many who have unknowingly done exactly what was needed in a very helpful way.

– Alicia (Founder and Director of Wholehearted Living)