“That Sucks!”

Willie Wilde comforting his brother OscarHere are two words that I have come to believe can be powerful in expressing empathy:

That sucks!

(“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.

About pastordavesimpson

I'm an unexpected pastor. Why unexpected? Because no one is more surprised than me that I'm a pastor. See the "About" page on my blog for more info.
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11 Responses to “That Sucks!”

  1. Megan says:

    I so agree. A friend of mine just had a baby with cystic fibrosis, and she was venting that it just wasn’t fair that she had to deal with it. I said, “You’re right, its not fair.” Which she said was just what she needed to hear.


  2. Pam Winnie says:

    You are always on target! Specially been feeling this since loosing Jerry. Sometimes those are the only words will do.


  3. Peggy P. says:

    I have been guilty!
    I agree, empathy is not about you. It is about the other person. We are really self-centered!
    Isn’t it strange how we will respond to a person’s situation with something like ” Yea, I know another person who had that or who had that happen to them.” It is not always that we want the other person to know there are others who have struggled with a similar situation. We just want to one up them, like “if you think this is bad, just listen to this!” Yes., that sucks!


    • Celia says:

      You are so right about one-upmanship. While pretending to listen, many people are using that time to gather their own thoughts for a pithy reply, when all we want is for someone to JUST LISTEN. You are a good listener.


      • When I used to do workshops about communication, I called that “Fisherman Listening.” You know, if one fisherman says I caught a fish “this big” the other will say he caught one bigger.


  4. Celia says:

    Thank you for validation! While suffering from a chronic disease, I have been told, “You are strong. You’ll get over this!” Or the opposite extreme, “You just have to accept this as your ‘new normal’.” But perhaps the best/worse one is, “But you LOOK good!” But what I’m hearing is, “You don’t LOOK sick! Aren’t you kind of using this as an excuse to avoid doing the things you don’t want to do?”
    But I’m no special case. At one time or another we all experience the need for a little extra empathy. Remember the little stickers the Red Cross gives to blood donors that say, “Be nice to me. I gave blood today.”? Many of us are wearing invisible stickers that say, “Be nice to me. I am suffering / grieving / depressed / in pain . . .” The best possible reply is, “That sucks. I’ll pray for you.”


  5. julie says:

    Thanks for this. Very appropriate as a good friend from work lost her father to an accident today. And I can’t say anything to take away the pain. And I don’t have to.


    • Gosh, sorry to hear about your friend’s loss. So many folks avoid those who are grieving because they don’t know what to say (I certainly used to). The important thing is to realize what you wrote, that there is nothing you CAN say that is going to make it all better. But just being there can make a huge difference.



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