(“That sucks!” can of course be moderated depending upon the recipient. “That stinks!” or, “That’s awful!” or, “I can’t imagine!” or, “That’s not fair!” work well when the word “sucks” would become the focus rather than your empathy.)
You probably won’t find “That sucks!” in any Pastoral Care textbook, or in any manual for caregiving. But that phrase is effective in accomplishing what most folks who are suffering want – and I would argue what they need – that is to have their misery validated. Those experiencing trials and tragedies need acknowledgement that what they are dealing with is dark and difficult. They need to know that we, and by extension God, love them and their feelings, no matter how uncomfortable they might make us.
Selfishness is often at the root of our attempts to pull someone out of their mourning or grief or anger. At least it is for me. Those can be scary, uncontrollable, unpredictable emotions in another person. We don’t want people we care about to feel bad. It is our own discomfort we too frequently try to alleviate.
But hurt and suffering and disappointment are realities in this world of ours. To deny that truth denies the validity of another person’s pain.
We deny another person’s pain when we respond to a struggle they share with any response that begins, “At least . . . ” “At least you didn’t have both arms cut off,” or, “At least you had a job for 20 years,” contain the message, “What are you an ingrate?”
Better just to say, “That sucks!”
Similarly, “God never gives you more than you can handle” (which is not in the Bible, by the way), really says, “Why are you such a wimp that you can’t handle it?”
There is a cringe-worthy but wonderfully real scene in one of my favorite movies, “The Tree of Life.” A mother is grieving the death of her adult son. A well-meaning older woman pummels her with a passel of pious platitudes:
You’ll have your memories of him . . . You have to be strong now . . .The pain will pass in time . … Life goes on . . .People pass along, nothing stays the same . . . You’ve still got the other two (children) . . . The Lord gives and the Lord takes away, that’s the way He is . . . he sends flies to wounds that he should heal.
Wouldn’t it have been better to just acknowledge the mother’s pain and just say, “That sucks!”?
“That sucks!” recognizes that a situation is difficult. It gives permission to be unhappy when that is an appropriate response, and conveys to a suffering person that they can’t, and aren’t expected by God to, handle everything on their own. It opens the door and extends the invitation to ask for help, from friends and from God.
God can handle our grief, and our hurt, and even our anger. God’s love is infinite. So is God’s empathy.
I don’t believe it’s our job to cheer people up. It is our calling, not just pastors but all of us, to do the more difficult work that makes us vulnerable; that is to enter into the grief and pain of those who suffer and experience it right along with them, as best we can, all the while acknowledging that we will never know exactly how they feel.
But believing that God can and does know exactly how we feel, and that God feels right along with us.