I didn't want to be the person who needed help – Here's what suffering taught me (and can teach you, too)

During my battle with cancer, Dr. Philip Ryken, the president of Wheaton College where I teach, visited my family’s home and asked how I was doing.

I answered as honestly as I could. “There are a lot of people who’ve rallied around us,” I explained, “but I think the hardest thing for me is being the person who needs help.” I went on to explain the shift from being the helper – my usual role as a disaster psychologist – to the helpee. I could read the compassion in his face, as he offered a word of wisdom.

“Jamie, we’re all the type of people who need help.”

As a psychological professional, I knew intellectually that what he was saying was true. But at that moment, I was still resisting the abrupt undeniable reality that I was now the person who needed help. For days after his visit, Dr. Ryken’s words continued to echo in my ears: Jamie, we’re all the type of people who need help. Being on the receiving end of help, rather than the giving end, taught me what loving others well looked like in a whole new way.


Show up

Whether it was a personal visit, a phone call, a card in the mail or even a gentle hug (when welcomed and appropriate), every expression of care was meaningful to me. I was surprised by some of the unexpected people in our lives who showed up so faithfully for us.

If the suffering of another causes you to experience anxious feelings, you may be tempted to avoid the individual. You will bless others, though, when you are able to push past those feelings to be present in a time of need. I know this all too well. I had a few people I thought for sure would turn up to sojourn with me that instead went off the grid. Moreover, I was not able to be there for a friend diagnosed with cancer when I was in remission, as much as I wanted. Because of this, I regularly struggle with survivor’s guilt.

These experiences taught me that what people already feeling isolated by what they’re facing most need is our presence.

Take an interest

When we do show up to support someone, it can be difficult to know what to say. You might feel the need to stick to discussing “safe” subjects, like the weather or weekend plans. Know that it’s okay to inquire about what the person is facing – but don’t force the conversation.

There were times I needed to share openly and get what I was going through off my chest. Other times I wanted to talk about anything other than cancer. It can be hard to know what your loved one may need. Instead of playing detective or assuming, a simple “how are you doing?” puts the person you are helping in the driver’s seat. This empowers the person struggling by giving him or her control over the conversation. It gives the individual the choice about what he or she may or may not want to discuss.

You can also ask about other things that matter to the person who’s suffering. Most likely he or she will appreciate your concern for a spouse, a child or anything else that’s important. Your care is a reminder that the one suffering is not alone. Or, it may be life-giving for the person to talk about a hobby, interest or work while sidestepping the difficulties. These sorts of conversations are also important because they help us feel normal during an abnormal time. When you discuss other parts of a person’s life, you honor the reality that he or she is more than what is being faced.

Be authentic

Another temptation, when showing up to support someone facing hardship, is to see yourself being the person who is “strong,” and the one facing hardship as the person who is “weak.” I, for one, can testify that it feels better to be the helper than the helpee.

But, put yourself in the position of the person who is suffering. Whether it’s a diagnosis, or a house fire, a hurricane or a divorce, it can feel so very vulnerable to be the person who is hurting. (If it’s a visit at the hospital or in a sick bed, being in a paper gown or flimsy pajamas doesn’t help!)

As a visitor, you can bless your friend in pain by being vulnerable yourself. Do you feel like you don’t know what to say? Did your heart break when you heard the bad news? Are you fighting back tears? It’s okay to be vulnerable and show what you are feeling as long as you don’t make it all about you. Doing so lets the other person know that you recognize the magnitude of what he or she is going through and that the person is not journeying alone. At the right moment, this can be a gift.

Offer what is most needed

Ask others what would be most useful and helpful. Even if you’ve gone through something similar, remember each person’s experience of hardship is unique. Remember that not all help is helpful. If what your offering isn’t actually needed or wanted, it could add stress instead of lightening the load.

Whether it’s food, clothing or childcare, make sure that what you’re offering is really what another needs or wants. Before bringing a casserole, check to see if a family’s fridge is already crowded. Before bringing clothing to a family in the wake of a house fire, check to see what the specific needs are.

Also look for opportunities to gift the familiar. I had periods when it wasn’t safe for me to be in public because the chemotherapy had weakened my immune system. This meant I couldn’t visit my favorite coffee shop. One of my friends texted to see if they could pick me up a cup of dark roast from that shop while they were out running errands. And another dropped off a bag of whole bean coffee at my doorstep. Each sip reminded that I was cared for by others.


Remember, if the person says, “Tonight isn’t a good night,” respect that answer. There will likely be another time or another way to help in the future.

Whether you are a person who takes charge or tends to hang back, remembering that being present and available is the best way to help, as well as identifying real needs and meeting those needs in a timely manner. Keeping in mind times that you have felt helped and blessed as it will help you bless and help others.