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How can I help a friend deal with suffering?



William McKenna, M.S. - published on 04/12/17

A psychologist uses the lessons of this liturgical season to give advice.

One of my favorite lines when it comes to suffering and grief comes from the eminent C.S. Lewis in his work, A Grief Observed: “Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand.”

Addressing suffering, whether as a writer or as a friend, can be difficult. It is easy to be perceived as uncaring if we don’t honor the reality of people’s pain.

On the other side of the spectrum however, we must not forget about Christian hope.

With this balance in mind, here’s my take on how this season can be a time for you to help others process their suffering, while both acknowledging it as real and approaching it with tremendous hope.

All of us have experienced (or are experiencing) suffering. Whether or not you would classify it as severe or minor is immaterial. The point is we all suffer. It is simply part of life.  

While this may seem like an obvious point to many readers, my experience with patients has shown me time and again that human beings tend to feel they are the only ones who suffer. This simply is not true, and pointing out that fact can bring great comfort to people.  

Our suffering always takes on different forms just as we are all different people. Some may experience the spiritual sufferings of the Dark Night, while others may experience the trauma of sexual abuse. The common experience, though, is the feeling of isolation. This is a real feeling all people experience, and we must honor it as not being an expression of weakness. Rather, we should recognize that expressing suffering takes immense courage since the sufferer must humble themselves by expressing human frailty.  

What can you do if you find a friend or a family member in such a situation?  

To be blunt, religious axioms rarely work with suffering. Saying, “trust in God,” or “His will be done,” usually makes the person feel rejected and misunderstood. At times it can even lead them to feel shameful!  

It would be better if you seek to simply be with them. Go to a movie, have dinner together, or just sit there as they cry. As relational beings we seek human encounters more than anything else. Advice (while having an appropriate place) is counterproductive when a person is in the throes of suffering.

Read more:
“If I Could Suffer More for You, I Would”

As Scripture tells us, there is a time for everything under Heaven. In the same way there is a time for those suffering to realize that they have the opportunity to unite sufferings and grief to Christ’s suffering on Calvary and begin to come out of isolation. This liturgical season is just such a time, as the entire Church moves toward Good Friday with the expected joy of Easter Sunday.  

I am never one to rush a person through their grief, but enabling others to give into despair is also never the answer.

God seeks our good, and as He says in Jeremiah: “I will turn their mourning into joy, I will show them compassion and have them rejoice after their sorrows (31:13).”  

Suffering does not have the last word.  As both a therapist and a human being I have seen firsthand how even in the darkest of nights, with Christ we can find the dawn.  

If you know others who are suffering this Holy Week, do not hesitate to “be Christ” to them, accompanying them in their pain, but also standing as signpost for the hope that comes when we give our sorrows to the Lord.

Read more:
Pope Francis: Overcome desolation with prayer, not pills or drink


William T. McKenna, M.S. is a Pre-Doctoral Resident in Clinical Psychology at Catholic Charities with the Diocese of Arlington. He recently completed his coursework for his doctorate at the Institute for the Psychological Sciences, now Divine Mercy University. Divine Mercy University offers graduate programs in psychology and counseling, both online and onsite in the greater Washington, DC area. Visit for more information.

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