Wholeness Healing Today

How to be with Someone in Emotional Pain

As a therapist I sit with people who are in emotional pain. Sitting with people in emotional pain seems like an obvious skill that I, as a therapist, would have due to my training. However, I am not sure that I was ever really taught how to sit with someone in raw pain. I believe my real ability to sit with someone in his/her raw pain comes from my own experience of being in emotional pain. Having experienced emotional pain myself
helps me to understand the pain others are feeling. I also realize that just being with the person can be very soothing and enough.

As a society, it seems that we haven’t really been taught how to be with people when they are pain. What do we do when our best friend has been diagnosed with a terminal illness, or another friend just lost his spouse, or the family at church lost their child? How do we help others when tragedy, disaster, or loss happens? Most of us will respond initially with cards, food, and/or making offerings towards helping the family. And this is important in being there for someone. It is important to do for others when they need help as well as “be there” for others when they need it.

But how do we “be” with the person? Being with the person requires the ability to sit in the midst of the pain. And really that is all we need to do – sit with the person. We don’t need to try to “fix it” because we can’t fix it. If we give suggestions, we are merely giving the other person the message that we are uncomfortable and then he/she has to then think about us. When we imply we know how he/she feels, we minimize his/her
circumstances. We don’t know how he/she feels. But our “presence” in being with the person could bring solace. So, perhaps, some some guidelines would be helpful.

Wendy Keller writes a blog and through her own tragic experiences has some suggestions that are good guidelines. (Kelly, 2012) First, she suggests that you make sure the conversation is “all about the person”. In other words, don’t bring up your own experiences that imply you understand his/her pain. Make the conversation about the person. Wendy gives two statements for you to use, both of which I often use. She suggests you simply say, “I am so sad that you’re hurting.” Or “I can’t imagine what you are going through.” These statements allow the conversation to stay focused on the person and not fall back to how you have felt.

Secondly, Kelly suggests that you merely listen to the other person. Sit with the person and allow him/her to be real. Be okay with wherever he/she is. Show this by just sitting, listening and letting him/her be in silence or tears. Be comfortable with silence and don’t fill in the quiet with your voice. Don’t fill in the moment with saying things such as, “At least he is out of pain now.” Or, “You are never given more than you can handle.” Or don’t bring up faith-driven statements as this can also make the other person feel badly. The last thing he/she feels happy about is that his/her loved one is with Jesus. Kelly suggests that this leaves the other person feeling guilty and states, “Listen. The kindest thing you can do is not talk.”

And the last suggestion Kelly gives is to help. Often a person going through tragedy can’t think about what needs to be done. Offering to help with specific items reminds the person of what needs attending to and may be considered very helpful. If they say “no”, then respect the answer and be sure and check back a day or two later to make another specific offer. Don’t tell the person to call if he/she needs help as it is very hard for people in our society to ask for help. We are not a culture that does this.

So consider these guidelines as a great place to start when you want to be present for someone in emotional pain. Make sure the conversation is all about the other person; listen, don’t talk; and help with specific tasks by making the offer, not putting it on the person to ask you if he/she needs help.

Works Cited

Kelly, W. (2012, April 25). http://wendykeller.com/featured/comfort-someone-else/. Retrieved April 30, 2012, from wendykeller.com/blog.




  • Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker
    Licensed Independent Mental Health Practitioner

  • Janie Pfeifer Watson, LICSW, is the founder and director of Wholeness Healing Center, a mental health practice in Grand Island, Nebraska with remote sites in Broken Bow and Kearney. Her expertise encompasses a broad range of areas, including depression, anxiety, attachment and bonding, coaching, couples work, mindfulness, trauma, and grief. She views therapy as an opportunity to learn more about yourself as you step more into being your authentic self. From her perspective this is part of the spiritual journey; on this journey, she serves as a mirror for her clients as they get to know themselves—and, ultimately, to love themselves.


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