Thursday, 23 September 2021

T To Your Health

Three Ways to Say I Love You

Dreams die hard. I know, because twice mine have been smashed to bits. The first time was in 1978, when our three-year-old son, Jonathan, got sick and died from an undiagnosed illness. I had loved him more than life.

            For years I struggled to put the pieces of my fractured soul back together. My doctoral work on personal wholeness helped me see how heartbreak permeates every part of a person—spirit, soul, body, and even relationally. Healing began. But then the hammer fell again, when in 1986 our second son, Christopher, nearly died, became severely disabled and then slowly recovered from the same rare genetic disease that causes brain damage in previously perfectly healthy kids. I would rather have died, myself.

            I could go on. But instead, here’s the point. Pain is pain. Mine is mine, yours is yours, your friend’s is your friend’s. We all have some. Some of us have a lot. But it’s all part of a continuum, which is where the hope lies, because if this be true, we can learn to help each other through the pain in order to  get beyond it.

            At the University of Pain, I’ve learned some lessons I wish I could have learned another way. Here are three of them. Heartbreak involves: 1. a loneliness that must be shared; 2. an emptiness that must be filled; 3. wounds that must be healed on their own terms.

            In order to help a hurting friend, therefore, we must learn to: 1. share the loneliness, by being personally present; 2. fill the emptiness; 3. find the open door into that person’s heart, and enter in with his or her wholeness as our only goal.

 

Sharing the loneliness

Rocky* was a long distance runner. Many times a year his long legs propelled his slender six-foot, nine-inch frame up the grueling twelve-mile-long Pikes Peak highway and back down in less than four hours. A construction worker acquainted with hard labor, Rocky had his life changed in an instant when he leaned over to pick up something and a disc ruptured, injuring his spinal cord. Suddenly, Rocky was paralyzed below the waist, and his family became penniless in no time because the injury wasn’t job-related.

            For weeks, all Rocky could do, while his wife was out working, was lie in bed. He couldn’t even use his own bathroom, so since they lived in the country, he would drag himself outside to use his backyard for a toilet, then back indoors to bed.

            During this process, he not only lost touch with his legs, he lost touch with God. He felt abandoned and betrayed and very confused . . . except when his faithful friend, Glenn*, would visit. “When Glenn came to see me,” Rocky told me, “there wasn’t anything he could say. He didn’t preach any sermons, or tell me how I should be feeling or what I should be thinking. Instead, he would actually climb into the bed with me, wrap his arms around me, and we would both cry. After he had been there, I felt like I had been bathed in love.”

            Rocky’s issues were common to every heartbroken person who’s ever lived, most of them starting with the word, “Why?” But his most helpful answer came not in words, ideas, insights or counsel. It came in the form of a person.

            Your hurting friend needs to know you care. The best, and perhaps only way to demonstrate this beyond doubt is: BE THERE. BE THERE. BE THERE.

            From their other “friends” they’ll hear lots of words—concepts, principles, Bible verses, pious platitudes, easy answers (to questions nobody’s asking, more on that later), pretty poetry, empty exhortation, and finally, words of judgment. From you let them hear the sounds of silence.

            All you have to give your friend is yourself. No words are necessary. In fact, most of the time, silence is a welcome respite, depending on what has happened. But if you insist on knowing what to say when you don’t know what to say, here are a few suggestions:

            “I love you.”

            “I care.”

            “I hurt with you.”

            “We’re in this together, no matter how long it takes, or how deep it gets.”

            When your friend finally wants to talk, be a good listener. Forget trying to fix either your friend, or the problem that brought the pain. You couldn’t fix either, even if you tried. Only God can mend a broken heart. But you can learn to listen, which mostly involves knowing how to ask the right questions, gently probing, helping the person download the pain and then focus on what might lead toward healing, once he or she decides that healing would be a good goal.

            Whatever happens, always view what is shared as a gift—a pain gift entrusted to you as a friend, a window into your friend’s heart. Be patient, be kind: it is a privilege you won’t get too often.

            And if as you listen, without judgment, your friend says something unexpected, such as: “I hate God,” regard that as a gift, too. Fight your initial inclination to correct, judge, or preach. Instead say, “I really appreciate you trusting me enough to let me so deeply into your pain. You sound pretty upset. I wish you would help me understand how it feels.”

 

Filling the emptiness

Misty* grew up in a dysfunctional home, with a mother who was most likely  manic depressive and a father who was disengaged. So all her life, Misty longed for love, but it wasn’t until she was twenty-four that she finally found Stacy*, an older woman who was willing to love her unconditionally and commit to being for Misty the mother she’d never had. Stacy accomplished this by recreating childhood situations Misty had missed—like being tucked into bed at night and hearing words she’d never heard but will never forget, “Good night, love.”

            One of the most creative things that Stacy did for Misty was to create for her an ABC list on a sticky pad. Misty called this her love alphabet. A. Misty is AUTHENTIC. B. Misty is BEAUTIFUL (not phony); C. Misty is COMFORTING (reaches out to hurting people); D. Misty is DEEP (she looks for more than superficial characteristics); E. ENERGETIC; F. FERVENT; G. GENEROUS; H. HOME-LOVING; I. INSIGHTFUL; J.JUST; K. KIND, and so on. The result was that, over time, Stacy was God’s instrument for filling Misty’s emptiness with love.

            When Jonathan died, it left a hole in my heart. I wandered on, trying to serve God—preaching, teaching, counseling, doing the work of the pastoral ministry. But I was always searching, searching for something to fill the emptiness.

            Sometime, I think it was after Christopher became ill and almost died, I gradually started to depend on alcohol to dull the pain. The problem was, the more I used this particular anesthetic, the more I needed it. In other words, the more I poured in, the deeper the hole became.

                        I struggled mightily with it, but the need was simply too strong. On the one hand I knew that only Jesus could satisfy my soul, yet on the other hand I didn’t want to let go of the pain, because letting go of it, surrendering, seemed to mean letting God win. I didn’t know until after I actually laid it down that it was always His intention that in my doing so we would both win.

                        Based on more than twenty-five years of experience with heartbreak, including my own and that of many others, I believe that every heartbroken person has felt this sense of emptiness. Thankfully, not all of them try to fill it inappropriately as I did, through substance abuse, though many try to fill it in ways to which they are blind, such as: recreation, hobbies, acquisition of property, wealth, fame or power, illicit relationships, and so forth. In every case, this will inevitably prove to be a detour to the one true destination that God has in mind for His children, that each of us would desire greater intimacy with Him because we have learned that nothing else can satisfy.

                        Our role as helpers is to discern when our friend is taking this detour, and to try to become his or her fellow traveler with a goal of encouraging repentance, the essential meaning of which is to turn around. This will almost never be accomplished by preaching or nagging, but by putting your arm around his or her shoulder and saying, in essence, what secular soul mates in A.A. and other support groups are willing to say, because they’re not afraid to tell the truth: “Sometimes life’s abominable, John.”

                        John may be surprised to hear this from you, but he’ll probably nod, and then say, “But something tells me there is more.”

            That something is really a Someone, and the “more” is authentic joy to take the place of mere happiness.

 

Healing the wounds on their own terms

By contrast, most of John’s friends have tried to convince him that because all things work together for good, his sadness is selfish and therefore displeasing to God. They do this because they think that every problem must be spiritualized, and as a result they force every problem they encounter into one “spiritual” niche or another. It’s as if every Christian should have a CD ROM resource library packed with answers, and all that is needed when a problem arises is to click the right button and the answer will pop up.

                        By doing this, however, they’re answering questions nobody is asking, at least not the person they’re trying to help; therefore, their solutions are irrelevant, perhaps even damaging.

            I believe that most broken people offer friends they trust an open door into their pain. It may be psychological, emotional, sociological, financial, or spiritual. It is a violation of this trust to ignore what is offered and force your way through on your own terms. But this is exactly what many potential helpers, especially pastors, do. For example, suppose John’s wife, Mary, has run off with John’s best friend, leaving John totally devastated. John’s pastor shows up with a copy of “Five Steps to Living the Victorious Christian Life,” and forces John to work through it point by point. I guarantee that, although John is highly unlikely to tell his pastor to take the pamphlet and shove it, he isn’t going to risk sharing that his strongest temptation is go blow his brains out with his .357 Magnum. John doesn’t need formulas or fixing. He needs somebody to come sit with him in the dark and cry until he runs out of tears.

                        After Jonathan died, it took me thirteen years to realize what might have helped me with my biggest problem, which lingered the longest—guilt. Our little boy, the light of my life, the apple of my eye, had died. And etched in my mind like on a steel plate was a memory related to the night before Jonathan experienced the metabolic brain damage that ultimately took his life. For three days he had experienced unrelenting nausea, apparently from a viral illness. “He’ll get better,” we figured, “and our life will return to normal.” Neither turned out to be true.

                        The etching is Jonathan and Daddy in the bathroom of that little parsonage in Carney, Michigan. It is perhaps 2 A.M. He is standing next to me, on his little hand made stool that said “Jon Jon.” He has just thrown up into the sink, again. He looks up at me and asks for a drink. “No,” I reply. “It will only make you throw up again.”

                        Later, when the autopsy report suggested his brain damage had occurred through sludging of the blood possibly as a result of dehydration,” it read like an indictment of me.

            “You killed your own son. You don’t deserve to live, yourself.”

                        And NOTHING anybody said ever helped. Why? Because guilt like this is not primarily an intellectual problem, which is what most people offered. “You did the best you could,” most of them said. “I would have done the same thing myself,” the doctor told us.

                        Years later, after more than a decade of being my own accuser, defendant, jury, and judge, another doctor/friend asked, “What were you guilty of?”

                        My response, perhaps because I was with him, was, “Parental malpractice.”

                        “And what is the sentence?”

                        I paused, thinking it through. “Life long unhappiness.”

                        For years I had carried the guilt, struggling to keep from drowning in the muck of depression and despair, imprisoned in a cell of my own making. As I was writing How to Help a Heartbroken Friend, I asked myself: What would have helped me?

                        Suppose someone who really cared about me had met me right where I was, entered the only door I offered—my guilt—and said. “I love you, Dave. And it breaks my heart to see you so weighed down with guilt. If you want me to, I’ll climb up on the church steeple and proclaim to the world: David’s not guilty. Not guilty. NOT GUILTY. He didn’t kill Jonathan!

                        “You see, Dave, that’s what you’ve been forcing us all to do for months now, and I would do it for years if it would really help. But you’re not listening. We could declare your innocence until we were blue in the face, and you would refuse to let go of your guilt.

                        “So...let’s look at this another way. Maybe, just between you and me, we should face something: You ARE guilty. You let Jonathan down. You failed. That’s what you really feel, isn’t it? That’s what you really believe is true. So, I’m gong to sit here and cry with you about that, and feel that as much as any man can share another man’s heartache. And when you’ve accepted my tears as proof that I really do love you, there’s one other thing I hope you will accept: I FORGIVE YOU, FRIEND. YOU ARE FORGIVEN.”

                        Unfortunately, no interchange like this ever took place. Nobody really met me where I was, at least not for years. And even then, nobody let me be guilty so I could be forgiven, because nobody came through the open door that I offered to anyone who would listen.

                        If you listen carefully to your heartbroken friend, you’ll recognize the kind of door I’m describing. If it is a sense of failure, connect with that by saying, “Maybe you could have done it better, or differently. But it’s done, and I love you anyway.”

                        If it is fear, instead of trying to convince them that they shouldn’t be afraid, say, “I’d be terrified if I’d been through this. Can I pray with you?”

                        Or if is doubt, instead of trying to convince them to have more faith, say, “You sound like you feel abandoned by God. Jesus felt that way, once on the Cross. Do you think He understands and cares?”

                        The answer, “Yes!” is the highest motivation for sharing your friend’s pain. In His behalf, you are privileged to say the only words that really help: “I love you...more than you could dare to ask or think. And when this is over, you will strengthen your brothers and sisters.”

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            *Cases are true. Names are not.

 

            This article is copyrighted © 2016, by David B. Biebel. Portions of the text are adapted from Dr. Biebel’s bookHow to Help a Heartbroken Friend (revised version, available mid- 2016). For information on how to order this, or other helpful books, see: www.healthylifepress.com, or e-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

 

Columnist: Dr. David B. Biebel

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Dr. Biebel has authored or co-authored twenty books, including one bestseller: If God Is So Good, Why Do I Hurt So Bad? and the Gold Medallion winner, New Light on Depression. His recent releases include Making God Visible and Away in a Manger: The Christmas Story from a Nativity Scene Lamb's Point of View.


His goal is to help people attain and retain optimal physical, emotional, spiritual, and relational health (personal wholeness) so they can love the Lord with their whole heart, soul, mind, and strength, and their neighbors as themselves. He founded Healthy Life Press (www.healthylifepress.com) to help new authors with something to contribute in this arena to get their works into print.

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        To Purchase these or any other of Dr. Biebel's titles click HERE

 

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