Many people spend a lot of time and energy taking care of others in pain. There’s a real temptation to brush off any feelings of discouragement, because, after all, they aren’t the ones suffering. Or are they?
Even though my pain isn’t the most apparent (I wear no casts or braces), it’s relatively easy to spot. Due to a nerve disease I can’t use my arms normally, so I have a loss of physical capabilities. I have to ask for plasticware at restaurants when their forks are too heavy for me to use. I’m reminded every day that I’m not strong enough to pick up my children. I ask my 7-year-old daughter, Norah, to untie my shoes after I come back from jogging.
Though my loss is easy to see, what about the loss my family has experienced? It’s often overlooked, but they've lost much through this trial as well. Though they’ve gained joy in serving others (a joy not to be minimized), they’ve also lost a husband and father able to physically serve them. I can’t drive the family car, take out the trash, throw a baseball, hold a baby, open the door, or pick up a wet towel from the bathroom floor. Not only does my family not have physical help from me, but they also spend additional time helping me.
Not Just Physical
My wife, Gloria, also experiences the emotional discouragement that accompanies this type of loss. For example, after leaving the Opryland Hotel in Nashville once after a quick stay, Gloria opened my car door, helped buckle my seatbelt, and managed to move the big cart with all of our suitcases to the back of the vehicle. She loaded each bag into the trunk and then closed it. Three women sitting on a nearby bench had been watching this scene play out. One woman called out to Gloria and told her it’s not right that her “good-for-nothing husband” just sat there and made her do all the work. My gentle and patient wife calmly replied that her husband was disabled, and then she got in the car before any tears arrived. Stuff like this happens all the time. We don’t often walk through airport security together because we’re tired of getting barked at by officials because I’m not helping put the shoes, bags, laptops, car seats, and stroller onto the X-ray belt for screening.
You probably have your own scenes you’ve lived through—scenes where you think that if only people knew what was really going on in your life, they might cut you some slack and help you. Anticipating and dealing with this kind of social anxiety can be quite distressing for a caretaker. As you care for and love the sufferer, there’s a different kind of suffering you experience that’s often left unaddressed. If you’re caring for someone who’s hurting, then the first step you need to take is to honestly grieve the loss that you suffer.
You’ve Lost Something
If you’re helping someone who’s hurting, you’ve given up something to care for them. You’ve lost something yourself in the process. I lost the health of my arms, but my wife lost a husband with healthy arms. Caregivers face the temptation to believe the lie that their spouse or friend has nothing to contribute. They battle the exhaustion of constantly defending the ones they care for or worrying about people thinking ill of them. My children also deal with the loss of not having a dad who can do things like pick them up, stop them from tumbling while on their roller skates, or open a box of crackers. They have to learn patience with me, and they can become frustrated when I’m unable to do something that their mom could do for them.
My church staff, who frequently have to stop what they’re doing to help me or to give of their personal time to help our family, also experiences loss. The one who loses a family member to cancer experiences deep pain and sorrow from the loss. So does the middle-aged teacher who takes repeated trips across the country to care for his aging father struggling with Alzheimer’s and can hardly remember his own son anymore. A young mother spends most of her day trying to fight for joy as she cares for her disabled daughter and her house. A friend doesn’t know what to say anymore after igniting the anger of her depressed best friend for the 100th time.
Grieving Your Own Loss
My point is that while we’re all, by God’s grace, privy to extraordinary gifts from his hands through these trials (like learning patience), we must acknowledge the pain of loss with our eyes wide open. Maybe you’ve thought that as a Christian you have to smile and pretend to be okay when someone asks you how you’re doing. Perhaps you think that if you’re grieving, then you’re dishonoring God. This isn’t so.
In some ways, our grief as Christians is amplified because our hearts of stone have been made hearts of flesh, and now we hurt for other people differently. You hurt for your family and friends who are suffering. It’s imperative that you’re honest about the pain that you’re going through. Rather than just trying harder and keeping it to yourself, it’s important that you grieve your loss and come to terms with reality.
We need to weep honestly at the loss we’ve experienced, but it’s a weeping fundamentally grounded in hope. Psalm 51:17 says, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” God will not despise a broken heart. If Jesus went to the cross for you, he’ll certainly be with you in your real pain.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matt. 5:4).
Editors’ note: This is an adapted excerpt from Dave Furman’s book, Being There: How to Love Those Who Are Hurting (Crossway, 2016). In this video, Dave and his wife, Gloria, share about the challenges they’ve faced and how God’s grace has been abundantly shown in their lives.