Being present for others’ suffering

One of the hardest things is to watch someone we love struggle, and not being able to help. For example, seeing your child sick or angry, and knowing things have to take its course, there is nothing you can do to speed it up or take away that suffering from your child. Another illustration is watching a friend go through hard times, when for you it seems evident what the friend should or could do to get better. But they may not be ready yet, they may still have to learn something. And learning and growing many times happens through suffering, and experiencing it all. We can’t always jump over it and skip the process to get to the solution.

As a therapist, I am faced with lots of human suffering. Facing death and dying, facing disease, violence and destruction, failure or loneliness, feeling anxious and disconnected or loosing something that is very important to us – some of this suffering so profound that I could sit down and cry or feel pity for the people in those difficult situations. But that wouldn’t help anyone. And, even though I know all those methods and beautiful tools to bring about change, it is very clear that I cannot take the suffering from this person. They can, if they are ready. And if it is what life holds for them.

A friend who is a doctor talked about having to tell people that they will die. And the frustration that comes with not being able to do anything about the suffering that brings. When I listened to him describe his search about how to best handle that difficult situation, I realized that there is one thing we can do, and that actually helps. One thing he is already doing, and I am doing, and we can all do. Something we can do, when we can’t do anything.

We can look the other one in the eye while they experience whatever they are experiencing. We can be aware of it, feel it, see it. We can try to not get out of that physical experience of those strong emotions, which is many times hard to bear. And as we are just and plain simply “there”, they are not alone in their suffering. It is something that happens without words, and that is meaningful and an incredible gift.

If we look at it energetically, everything is connected. And many spiritual schools teach us that suffering only persists because of the resistance to a certain idea, sensation or emotion. So we can feel the other person’s emotion within us, their confusion, fear or pain. And as we don’t resist that experience within us, something can start releasing. And as that happens within us, the therapists, doctors, mothers, partners and friends, a tiny little shift can happen for the person who faces the difficulties. Maybe it’s just that they are not a lone. Maybe it is that they can find some kind of acceptance. Maybe they can allow themselves to feel what was to big to face alone. And as this shift occurs, they can give new meaning to their situation. Especially and mostly, because no one tried “to help them”.