My Loved One is Suffering. How Can I Help?

supporting someone with chronic pain
Dr. Gary McClain
Written by
Dr. Gary McClain Mental Health

A while back, a politician said something to the effect of, “I feel your pain.” These days, that line is generally used in a humorous sense.  But if you are supporting someone with chronic pain, I suspect that line conjures up all kinds of thoughts and feelings for you.  Most of them not very funny. 

That’s because watching someone you love struggle with pain is anything but humorous.  As a partner, as a parent.  You know how hard things are for them, you can see it in their face, the way they move, and in the way they speak. 

You want to say something to make them feel better.  You might find yourself saying to your partner: “You’re gonna be just fine.  And soon.”  Or to your child: “”Where does it hurt?  Let me make it better for you.” 

And the way in which your loved one responded may not have been so gratifying.  They may felt frustrated, or angry, because you were promising something you clearly couldn’t deliver on.  Sure, you were just trying to be helpful.  But it didn’t feel that way to them. 

I think it is not an overstatement to say that supporting someone with chronic pain can really make you feel helpless. 

Of course, you can’t take their pain away.  Even if that’s what you wish you could do.  But between doing absolutely nothing, and ridding them of their pain, there are actually a lot of things you can do when supporting someone with chronic pain. 

Here’s are some ideas to consider: 

Get Informed Together  

Make it known that you are on stand-by.  Let your partner or child know that you are standing by to help in not only gathering information, but making sense of it, whenever they are ready.  Kids are especially in need of reassurance, so feel free to repeat as needed. 

Do your own information-gathering.  It’s not realistic to remain uninformed even if your loved one is locking you out of this process. Find information on your own so that you can educate yourself on how to be a better healthcare partner. And active information-gathering is a great way to help you cope with your own helpless feelings.

Let your loved one know you are getting informed.  You don’t need to surf the Web in secret. Gently inform your loved one that you want to be as educated as possible and are doing your own research. 

Offer to share your information.  As you get educated, offer to share what you are learning. Use statements like: “I just found out about an interesting new treatment. Do you want to know about it?” or “I saw a list of foods that might help you. Any interest?”  If you are a parent, your information-sharing may be needed to help explain any limits you need to set.

Encourage Adherence

Look for teachable moments.   The long lectures get old after awhile.  You might instead be alert for moments when you can gently point out your loved one’s lack of adherence.  For example, if you notice they have missed a medication dosage, you can quietly remind them and ask if they would like you to help them remember.  Parents may find using teachable moments especially helpful because younger kids and teens can be especially resistant to feeling lectured. 

Use some “patient” education.   If you find yourself scolding your loved one, or getting angry, or giving orders, you may also find that you’re not making a whole lot of progress.   Instead, assume good intention on their part rather than a desire to cause you frustration and annoyance.  Who knows?  Your loved one may get the overall concept of self-care but not be sure how to actually make it happen.  Kids often need additional guidance in establishing self-care routines.  How about asking if you can make a suggestion before you launch in with one?  And then, focus on what they could have done and not what they didn’t do. 

Choose your battles.  As you have probably learned already, when people feel pushed into doing something, they become more resistant.  Especially when supporting someone with chronic pain. That’s true for your partner and it’s true for your children.  So if, out of your own desire to help, you are turning everything into a battle of wills, your partner or kids may put up a wall.  Be mindful of what is most important – like taking medication on schedule – versus what be less important.  Use your judgment here.

When You Don’t Know What To Do…

Ask. It’s sad to me is that so many people don’t take the time to ask questions. They assume to know already. Or they just don’t think about what their loved one needs. The simple question – “What can I do for you?” – shows how much you care. By asking it, you’re already one step toward helping your loved one feel more supported. 

Listen. With an open mind. You might be surprised at what you hear from your loved one. Maybe you’ll learn that a simple gesture would help him/her have a better day. But you may also learn that your partner or child needs a lot more from you than you expected. You might hear about how overwhelmed they feels at times, or a lot of the time. A few disappointments or resentments might come up. Be open to what your loved one has to say.

Get specific.  I have found that both caregivers and patients avoid talking about the support process itself, and what they are expecting of each other. Family members are often afraid that if they bring up the subject of support, their partner or child may assume that they are feeling burdened with their support tasks, or that they don’t want to help them anymore and are trying to find a way to break the news. In turn, your loved one may fear burdening you, but also doesn’t want to be made to feel incompetent by receiving too much care.  Keep in mind that grown-ups, younger children, and teens can all feel disempowered because “hovering” over them can be interpreted as not trusting them to do what they can do to take care of themselves.  Furthermore, when needs and expectations are not clear, this can result in missteps that can lead to tension. 

Figure out a path forward.  Talk about how you see your role supporting someone with chronic pain — what you can and want to give, and what you think they need — as well as your partner’s or child’s expectations. While defining your role is going to be a work in progress, open communications can help you to build a solid foundation for moving forward, and for protecting your own health and well-being.  Keep talking! 

Watch the Silver Lining Talk

Don’t be a positive thinking police bully.   Being told to “think positive” or to “stop feeling that way” is a tactic of the positive thinking police.  Jumping in with a “yes but” and showering your loved one in rainbows and puppy dogs is another tactic.  Denying feelings doesn’t make them go away.

Your loved one has the right to feel bad.  Be sensitive to what your loved one needs to hear and doesn’t need to hear.  They are living with this chronic pain.  Some days are going to be harder than others.  On a bad day, go into asking questions and listening mode.  Keep in mind, you may be asked to step aside and just be quiet.  When your partner says, “I’ll be okay, honey,” or your child says, “please leave me alone for awhile,” keep an eye out but back off. 

Let your loved one know he/she doesn’t have to sit all alone with negative feelings.  Be someone who can listen without telling them how they should be feeling or judging them.  Encourage them to vent!  When you release feelings into the light of day, they lose their power over you.

Give Your Loved One Their Space

Individuals living with chronic pain are facing a wide range of emotions. Many of these feelings are uncomfortable — a feeling, like fear or anger, may be so uncomfortable that they may not be able to even acknowledge feeling this way, let alone begin to express these feelings to someone else. Your loved one may feel so emotionally overwhelmed that they may shut down.  And that’s scary for you to witness.  Gently ask your partner or child how he how he or she is feeling, not only physically but emotionally, let them know you are here to listen.  Remind them as needed, but don’t push. 

We willing to step aside.  Keep in mind that, at least initially, some individuals are more comfortable opening up to people who are not their family members, and with whom they are less involved on a daily basis, like a counselor or support group member. Don’t take this personally. Your partner may feel the need to protect you from his or her feelings, and so might your child.  Give your loved one space to cope in a way that works for them. 

Take Care of Yourself

Take ownership of your own helplessness.  Human beings love being in control, and we love it so much that we tell ourselves we have control even when it is obvious that we don’t. And in a caregiving situation, that need to be in control can result in running ourselves into the ground trying to meet every possible need of someone we love to the point that we are running on empty. What parent hasn’t felt this way, right?  In the process of depleting ourselves, we also risk alienating the people we care about by taking their own sense of control away from them.

Find your own support system.  If you totally deplete yourself, you aren’t going to be helpful to anyone. Yes, I know you’re superhuman, but you’re still human. Find a safe place to talk about your own emotions — your fears and frustrations — and to get feedback and advice. Don’t be afraid to ask for help in coping with being a caregiver. And don’t be afraid to talk about how you feel, even the feelings that you aren’t so comfortable with, like anger. A trusted friend, a family member, a counselor, support group, or a member of the clergy.

Express your own emotions.  You may not feel comfortable admitting to emotions like fear, out of concern that they may come across as having a negative or pessimistic attitude. While it is realistic not to sound alarms, expressing your own concerns about supporting someone with chronic pain can help to create an atmosphere of honesty. If fear, for example, has become the “elephant in the room,” getting it out in the open can relieve the tension that results from talking around the emotions that are most likely on everybody’s mind. While you want to encourage and support your partner or child, he or she most likely wants to do the same thing for you. Open the door for both of you.

And recognize where you don’t have control.  Here’s the hardest one of all.  When you love someone, you also want the best for them.  But nobody likes to be told what to do.  Even if they probably need to be told what to do. Be a support, a cheerleader, and throw in some tough love when you need to.  What you can do is support someone with chronic pain, but you can’t make the pain go away.  So focus on the goal of helping to motivate your partner or child to do everything they need to do to take the best possible care of him/herself.  Be a team!  

You and your loved one.  Here is some final advice that is guaranteed to make every day a better one.  Begin and end the day with three words: “I love you.”

Dr. Gary McClain
Written by
Dr. Gary McClain Mental Health

Dr. Gary McClain, PhD, is a psychotherapist, patient advocate, and author, specializing in helping clients deal with the emotional impact of chronic and life-threatening illnesses, as well as their families and professional caregivers. He works with them to understand and cope with their emotions, to learn about their lifestyle and treatment options, to maintain compliance with medical regimens, to communicate effectively with the medical establishment, to communicate better with other family members, and to listen to their own inner voice as they make decisions about the future. He writes articles for healthcare publications and websites, facilitates discussions in social health communities, and conducts workshops on living with chronic conditions, Chronic Communication. Visit his blog for more on mental health at www.JustGotDiagnosed.com Connect with him on twitter @drgaryjgd 

This article is for informational purposes only. The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek medical advice from your physician or health provider for your specific needs.