what to say to someone in pain

The dog park is better than TV. It’s where we veg out, our pupper digging in holes bigger than she is under five or six of those generous oaks that define Charleston. It’s our getaway when we’re too tired or stressed to do anything else. All the dogs smile and it makes all the humans smile back.

I sometimes wish we were one of those life-of-the-party couples, but instead we both give off a tell-me-all-your-problems signal, and this time, it happens at the dog park. We are blindsided by the woman telling us of her grief at the death of her boyfriend. I don’t think of people, three weeks after a death, going around and doing things, but here she is. You wonder how many people you’ve met who were three weeks out from a death. She says she is looking forward to going back to her grief group. She says grief wraps all around you where you can’t get out. Part of me just wants to go back to enjoying the evening breeze and not think about death. I imagine her, going around in an inescapable thick cloud that silently repulses all the people she meets, sidestepping her with well-wishes so as not to catch the grief. Then I imagine her at her group, huddled in a circle where everyone has a cloud and everyone’s cloud is touching and maybe by rights that should be horrifying, but actually it is where the clouds mingle that their colors are softer and they are not so suffocating. Only the clouded ones are not afraid of each other.


It is similar, I am finding, with chronic illness. People are curious, but they don’t know what they are asking. “I hope you get better,” they say, and they mean it, but they also mean, “I don’t want to talk about this anymore.” You don’t blame them; it’s not interesting or easy to talk about. But you also end up hiding part of your life, just to spare other people from witnessing your pain; and you really, really don’t expect them to want to. But you stay home more, because hurting people don’t belong at parties—not until they’re better.


Must I list all the other kinds of pain? We all know traumas; and we have all known the shame of having minimized another’s pain before we came to understand. People who have the courage to say they are in pain should be believed.

Here is another thing: you do not have to glorify suffering to acknowledge the truth that running away from it never really works. And it is not demonizing anyone to recognize, on a sort of flip side, that pain has made some people hard, bitter, even grotesque.

There is no good time or place to be in any kind of pain, but 21st-century America might be a particularly bad one. Once, towns were small, and everyone knew that everyone had illnesses, deaths in the family, financial losses. Now we call these things private. Now there are so many ways to go numb, it can take all your energy not to let the netflix binge or the scrolling glamours of other people’s lives take over, night after night, until you are never home with yourself, never doing your own work. It is too easy to avoid your communities, to manufacture escape in the dark.

But what is worse is the unspoken expectation that if you have done your work in whatever way, you will heal quickly and correctly. Around here we measure people by work done, progress achieved, goals accomplished, status unlocked; so when your trajectory is nonlinear or nonexistent, people tire of you. They blame you. You know they do, and you blame yourself. In the end so many of us are walking around in our clouds, trying to pull them tight around ourselves, letting them poison us if only they won’t touch anyone else. If only we can appear normal or strong or rational, if only most of ourselves can be allowed to live while some other vital part of us suffocates: the part that bears our pain.

Look, my friends, it doesn’t have to be this way! I think there have been times and places where people in pain knew it could make them wise and generous; where others knew how to value them without needing to know how to fix them. But in this time and place, do not look to any cultural institutions for these secrets; they are only within some of the bravest of the sufferers, themselves.

They are the ones who have made friends with their clouds, most days, and that’s why they’re not afraid of others’. They are the ones who have let someone else into their clouds, and that’s why they know the urgency of reaching out, even to the roiling, even to the ugly ones. Does that mean sharing the pain? Yes, in some way, it does—but that is how burdens are lightened. That, I would argue, is the whole work of Christ. It is the suffering who “know what to say” to each other:
Your suffering is allowed. You do not have to be more than you are. I do not have to understand. Blame does not matter and will not help. We can bear this.

We have succeeded when we continue, together, to be.

2 comments

Lu Schlenker

This was beautiful and honest, thank you.

Thanks for hearing, Lu.

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