How To Support Friends Through Their Suffering

Storms of suffering present challenges on at least two levels. The storm itself is level one – the accident, the miscarriage, the sickness, the betrayal, the financial loss. These objective realities are incredibly hard to navigate, but according to the testimony of survivors they are, surprisingly, not the biggest challenge. The internal storm (level two) that rages as a result proves even more difficult to navigate – the untamed anxieties, the unyielding doubts, the unshakable depression, the unresolved confusion… the unending exhaustion.

I recently interviewed an incredible circle of women who have shown me what it looks like to help a friend navigate both levels of life’s devastating storms — the objective realities and the personal grappling. These women have faithfully supported their close girlfriend Nicka Pohl while her husband, Brent, endured: a liver transplant, a kidney transplant, and over 80 days in the hospital due to complications.

First, these women pursued opportunities to relieve as much pressure as possible.

“While Brent was in the hospital, the question we focused on was, ‘What can we take off Nicka’s plate.’” Dana Frain said. “There were many practical needs. A neighbor organized a meal plan and basically the whole neighborhood stepped up to provide meals. Friends from the house church mowed their lawn. Some collected money to pay for Nicka’s parking at Hopkins. Others assembled snack packages filled with drinks and health bars that she could take on her trips to the hospital. A few would check in with Nicka regularly to see if she needed them to run errands or stop by Target. Others babysat or drove their children to events.”

Through it all, Nicka’s inner circle of girlfriends took point and guarded her from having to interface with lots of people, especially when her emotional reserves were depleted.

Supporting a friend through suffering requires forethought, organization, and loving sacrifice. These women did a great job relieving the pressure of Nicka’s “level 1” challenges. They saw what needed to be done and jumped into action. But the wisdom of their care shined even brighter as they supported Nicka through the “level 2” challenges.

Equally important as relieving certain pressures, they also understood their limitations to make things better.

Keyne Geisler had known Nicka since high school. Their long history and intimate knowledge of each other allowed them to feel completely safe. In the midst of terrifying uncertainty, they could communicate without speaking any words. There was no need to ask questions, even though they had the same ones – What is going on? Is Brent going to die or not?

“Nicka didn’t know why all this was happening to her husband. I didn’t feel I needed to answer her.” Keyne said. “I knew how deeply Nicka desired to trust Christ—not people, not me, not doctors. It wouldn’t be me that helped her. It would be the Holy Spirit. I just felt like I could help with practical needs but only God could truly meet her heart needs.”

So these women turned to God and helped Nicka to do the same. They appealed to everyone they could to pray for the Pohls and to send index cards with encouraging Bible verses. They wallpapered Brent’s hospital room with God’s promises. With Nicka, they waited patiently on the Lord and resisted the urge to try to “fix it”. Their faithfulness to God and their sympathetic love for Nicka made them sweet comforters.

Personally, Jenna Mace knew how hard it was to lose a family member. Jenna’s loss propelled her into a depression that made it very painful to worship the Lord. Because Nicka had walked through that experience with Jenna, they shared a deep trust that enabled genuine conversations to occur without presumption or guardedness, even on Nicka’s most fearful days. This was 2 Corinthians 1:3-5 in action: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.”

“When we face suffering, our experience is often marked by trust and fear — intertwined together.” Keyne added. “One moment can be full of faith, the next full of fear. But somehow, God’s grace is enough.”

For this group of women, it was God’s grace – not their ability to understand things or fix things that sustained them with an undeniable (and contagious) sense of peace. And it was their love for a friend that enabled them to anticipate need and work to relieve it.

By learning from their story, we might offer better comfort to our friends when they endure life’s stormiest seasons.

A True Friend to Comfort Us

Jesus was the truest friend, but not the easiest. He had the ability to speak to people’s hearts with such force and wisdom that they felt exposed, even naked. Yet, despite feeling naked and ashamed, people wanted to be near Jesus because he loved deeply.

Jesus comforted the afflicted, but he also afflicted the comfortable. This explains why the “wrong sort” of people usually loved him: tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners. And the “right sort” usually hated him: religious people and leaders. But not always. Even religious people (and leaders) came to love him; if they could endure the humiliation of being stripped of their self-righteousness (and self-reliance) and see their need of him.

Jesus loved with compassion and wisdom. He loved with an awareness of a person’s individual fears, desires, and personality.

“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died!” Martha cried out in frustration when Lazarus died. (See John 11:17-44)

From other accounts, Martha seems to be a thinker, not a feeler. This would explain why Jesus reasoned with her.

“Your brother will rise again.” Jesus said.

“I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Martha said. But she wanted him back now! She missed him.

“I am the resurrection and the life.” Jesus said. “Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”

“Yes, Lord.” Martha replied.

Martha believed in Jesus’ power over death, but she tended to see Jesus as a means to an end. When Jesus said, “everyone who believes in me shall never [really] die” he wanted Martha to change her perspective. Heaven would be heavenly not because it extended life forever, but because it reconnected people to life’s source — to Him. Until Martha was ready to see Jesus was the end, not merely a means to an end, she would never experience life to the fullest; even if she had her brother back from the dead that day (which she would).

Mary, Martha’s sister, approached Jesus saying the same thing, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died!” But Mary’s grieving process was different. Unlike her sister, Mary was a feeler, not a thinker. Jesus knew the way to comfort her was not with reason but with tears. So, Jesus took the time to weep with Mary; even though he was about to raise Lazarus.

He loved each sister perfectly. He gave each exactly what she needed to feel loved and understood. We might assume that the really important thing was to physically restore their brother to them. But for Jesus, it was just as important to restore each sister emotionally and spiritually.

Jesus is the truest friend who knows how to comfort us in our pain. We can trust him to break through to us in exactly the way we need him. Unlike Mary and Martha, we may have to wait longer than several days to see God’s full power. But even if we have to wait until the final resurrection, we have a true friend to comfort us now.

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