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When we consider other’s pain, their particular form of suffering, we often don’t know what to say or do, so we do or say nothing.

Recently my dad told me that his vision has deteriorated so much he can’t read. What to say?

It’s hard. I’ve been in that linguistic vacuum of not knowing. It’s awkward.

But lately, suffering my own significant degree of pain and loss, I better see what can be said or done.

After hearing about my dad‘s loss of vision, I asked him what he’s been doing with his time. I was interested. He had some things to say. He’s been sitting in beautiful spaces taking in the scenery. It was good. I didn’t really say anything, just listened.

Sometimes It’s OK to be silent if it is attend by interest and questions. Silence is fine —- as long as we are still present. Just sitting with someone in a waiting room at the hospital, just listening on the phone and not giving any advice, this can be so respectful and honoring.

But there are things to say. Wisdom has words. Wisdom communicates.

What?

How?

We can ask questions. We can draw out the person’s experiences, thoughts and feelings. Recently, upon hearing that one of my daughters was struggling with her emotions, I encouraged her to write her feelings in a journal and then to send them to me. She now does that regularly, and I respond with “Good job,” and “A+” drawing from my experience as a teacher. Sometimes we discuss what she has written.

Feelings — they are best approached as being normal, human, not right or wrong. I love the line — upon hearing of someone’s fear or embarrassment or shame or anxiety — “Considering what you are going through, anyone would feel that way.” It is so salutary to normalize people’s feelings.

Next we can relate to and acknowledge the whole person. We are more than our suffering, even when it seems to dominate. Recently I received a text from a friend asking me if I would like to speak to his congregation. He was honoring what I used to do. We had some fun with it. I often used a barstool while speaking. I did so to give a relaxed, human, cool, down-to-earth vibe to my presentations. I told him now that I’m suffering chronic pain, I’d have to speak laying down on the stage, and I would invite people to sit around me. It would be a new take on on casualness. The sermon on the ground! My friend saw me as more than my pain. We could laugh about it. Humor helps.

Another approach is to speak of good memories. Recently we heard of a friend who doesn’t have much longer to live. Despite some years of separation, even some alienation, we wrote notes to her remembering all the good things we experienced together earlier in life. Remembering the good, when you’re faced with the bad, it’s helpful.

Finally, instead of focusing on dysfunction, disability or pain, we can focus a person on what is good in them. Someone told me recently, “You are so strong, you’re brave.” He spoke of my previous accomplishments in reinventing organizations. I needed that. I was feeling weak, afraid and unaccomplished. It was good to be reminded that strength is still there within.

As I hung up with my dad the other day, he said he felt so guilty for not calling me. I told him that was OK. I had no judgment of him. He thanked me for this. This is something my pain has done for me. It’s knocked the criticalness out of me. It is powerful to relate to others without judgment.

Pain and hardship, it’s rough, but we can still talk during it, and at the very least we can go through it together.