We all hurt at times. But, when someone we love is hurting deeply, it is really hard. I know it is harder for me when my wife, my children, my grandchildren hurt than when I hurt. The hurting of others reaches deeply inside of us.

We try to find words that reach into our loved one and ease the hurt. But, words are really hard to find. When pain is pressing in on another, the words feel as if they don’t reach in far enough to ease that pain. We feel helpless.

When we do speak words, we sometimes try to talk them out of their pain. We try to remind them that it will get better. We try to reason with that which, inside our bodies or hearts feels unreasonable. Sometimes we find ourselves talking just because it feels like we need to do something.

When the pain continues we may find that we get angry. We don’t know where to focus the anger. The person we love doesn’t deserve our anger. The pain is stealing the spirit of the one on whom we depend to be who they were. Our anger is a response to not having the power to make the pain go away. We might even pull away to protect ourselves from hurting so much.

But, I think that the most important thing for us to do is move closer. When words don’t ease the pain, maybe a touch will. When pain persists, maybe silent embrace could give comfort in thepain. When pain does not go away, maybe trying to share the pain will make it a little easier for our loved one to bear it. Maybe a sharing a cup of tea or a taste of chocolate will allow some pleasure to seep inside the suffering spaces. 

Life has its suffering. Be present to it. Hold it with each other. It won’t necessarily go away but maybe we can help each other live more fully in the pain.



He sat at the table describing his experience with chemotherapy a couple of years ago.  “I have a different perspective now on the phrase, ‘Living in the moment.’” 

I asked, “What do you mean?”

He said, “Depression and despair is so great when at nine o’clock in the morning you can’t stand to think about the relief of going to sleep at nine o’clock in the evening.”

He went on to say, “Most of our lives we live in the space between something that we remember and something that we anticipate. Like when we visited our friend last weekend and when we are going to have dinner with another friend tomorrow.  Most of the time we think about what has happened, reveling in it or regretting it, and then what might happen that will be pleasant or that we dread.”

“But,” he said, “when your world shrinks into the compressed moment of feeling so terrible that you can’t even imagine the next hour, all you can stand to do is “live in the moment.’”

I had never thought about the suffering of some people that way. Pain and nausea can be so claustrophobic. The walls of pain can block our future and blind our memory.

I don’t know what his might mean. But, it does help me see why it is hard to know how to be with people in that kind of situation. And it helps explain why one of the best things we can do in the midst of suffering is simply “be with” another. There is no way that I can know what it is like to suffer that way. So, my words will be inadequate or empty. But, maybe quiet companionship in the squeezed-in box of pain and suffering can be helpful.


We are drawn to compassionate people. Yet, it isn't always easy to be compassionate. In his book, "The Roots of Sorrow: A Pastoral Theology of Suffering", Phil Zylla develops a way to talk about God and suffering. One of the movements that we must make if we are to try to talk about faith and pain is to move from indifference to compassion.

Compassion literally means, "to suffer with." But, Mr Zylla believes that this doesn't fully reflect what Christian compassion is.  It isn't simply to find yourself in a place where others suffer and to stand with them. He says that "compassion is the capacity to move toward suffering rather [than] away from it." He believes that in this regard, compassion isn't natural. He suggests that we are repelled by suffering. We prefer to move away from it rather than to it.

I understand what he is getting at. I would agree that we often avoid suffering of others. But, I also know that when we have a deep and abiding connection to the other, we are drawn toward their suffering. If our child is injured, we are drawn to them. If our sibling is in pain, we are impelled to move toward the pain. There is a desire to share the pain with the hope that our presence might help ease the suffering.

But Mr Zylla is right in that many cases we move away from suffering of those we don't know. We often don't know what to do and don't like to be somewhere that we are helpless. That is why it is often helpful to be part of organizations such as the church who create opportunities for us to be compassionate--to move toward suffering rather than away from it. With some guidance and some presence of others, we gain courage to share suffering with others.

What communities are you part of that help you develop your compassion? What kind of suffering are you willing to walk toward?  


I was reminded recently how small one's world can become.  She has been ill and in the hospital for weeks. The world has shrunk to being about her and her body. The attention is on the disease and the doctors and nurses focus on her and the bacteria that will not respond to the treatment.

When I have visited, I want to know all that is going on. (When we get anxious we seek more and more data,  hoping that if we can just understand what is happening we might be able to do something about it). I am tempted to keep the attention on her and her disease, her care, her pain, her energy, her prognosis.

But, then she asked me "How are YOU ALL doing."  The emphasis was on "YOU ALL".  And I was reminded of what I have always known: When we are sick our world can shrink and smother us. We need to know what else is going on.  There is so much of our time when the pain and fear of our own suffering can't be avoided that we long for something that takes us outside of ourselves.

So, when you are with people who are suffering disease or caught in the slog of sadness over loss, share with them their suffering. Be open to walking with them in their pain.  But, also bring your own life into them and give them a taste of the rest of the world.  Help open them up to the reality of life as they have known it so that they can feed off the hope for a life that is large enough that they don’t suffocate.