On working with another person’s pain

heartI had a telephone conversation today with a friend who is in a lot of pain. I have more than one friend in that condition. In our phone call we never got to our intended subject, and we talked for an hour.

In this post I will share some of the things I have learned about working with pain. I’m not a therapist, not a credentialed counselor, but it is hard to avoid learning about pain in this world. The need to learn finds us.

This is a short summary of what I know about working with another person’s pain.


  • Listen to understand, not to plan how to respond.
  • Avoid giving advice. Avoid preaching.
  • Look for the connections among the things the hurting person is saying, and ask if you understand those connections correctly.
  • Thank the hurting person for their trust.
  • Share an example of how you have been hurt. My younger brother murdered his adorable wife, and then killed himself. He was drunk, stupid, and angry.
  • Acknowledge that pain is universal. It is not evidence of being inferior or unfortunate.
  • Acknowledge that the point when dealing with pain is to be open to love in spite of being in pain.
  • Be available in a physical way, such as touching hands, if that makes the hurting person feel secure.
  • Avoid showing any personal distress no matter how much of it you feel.
  • Project confidence and some measure of serenity.
  • Encourage the hurting person to ask friends to talk with them about their experiences. Pain often causes people to withdraw, to hide out.
  • Encourage the hurting person to recognize the helplessness of people who are servants of their own anger.
  • Encourage the hurting person to not try to fix severely wounded people, but rather to choose to not be in their company.
  • If appropriate, offer books to read. I take comfort in John Bradshaw’s Healing The Shame That Binds You.
  • Recommend TED Talks on dealing with pain. Search on the TED website for “regret” and you will find some wonderful content. I especially enjoy Monica Lewinsky’s talk. It is a life changer.
  • Remain humble. Except for the saints living among us, we are all in pain.

I welcome your comments.

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