Being Present with a Friend in the Hard Times (Part One)

The next two posts will be adapted from some sharing I did with a group of women at a retreat recently.

Friendships can be so hard and messy, because, of course, we each bring our mess to the table.  We all carry wounds within us that influence our responses to each other.  Much of it is unconscious which makes friendships even more complicated to maneuver when so much of our story is buried, partly out of survival and partly out of choice.   My childhood beginnings were filled with trauma and terror; torture so intense that in order to survive, I had to dissociate and shut off my heart and mind so I could survive.  That saved me as a child and also allowed me to live as an adult without any of the traumatic memories.  One of the losses however, is that as an adult, not only did I have almost no memories of my childhood – good or bad – but I continued to be shut down and not be present.  I had no childhood experience of love.  

I found God when I was fourteen years old, and as I grew in my faith and my desire to connect with others, I realized I was cut off from those around me, unable to make connection or even really love, and certainly not able to be there for friends in all that they faced in this crazy life.  As I eventually faced my trauma, through years of memory and grief work, I slowly began to wake up and the gift of Presence was one of the new and beautiful experiences.  In this conversation, as we talk about being available for friends as they struggle and hurt, we will be talking a lot about our own transformation to presence, which is a critical key.  

As I was walking through years and years of therapy – living in a dark place of remembering – it was very difficult for many of my friends.  We all experience loss when our friends are walking through something demanding and full of trauma.  It is hard for both of us.  The one going through the crisis feels alone and isolated and the one supporting feels like they are loosing their friend, or at the very least, it is unsettling when the friend we have known and loved is different and changing and grieving deeply.  We may struggle with big, complex feelings, wishing things would stay the same.  We just want things to be the way they were.  The familiar draws us … even if it is hurting us.  It is so challenging to allow each other to grow and change.  Because change always feels like loss.  (So, in any kind of change, be compassionate to yourself.  There is always loss associated with it.)

When we are in a place of trauma, loss, and pain, not all our friends will be able to be present with us in those places.  In fact, many won’t.  Journeys of loss, pain, and crisis are going to require a lot of grace, mercy, love and forgiveness … between friends.  

Fifteen years ago, my husband and I started a church called Renovatus ( Latin for “renovation”).  I had also initiated my therapy for childhood trauma that same year.  At about year six in our Renovatus Church journey, and also six years into the depths of my trauma work, our son and church planting partner, Ryan, got a brain tumor in his spine and we walked together with Ryan, Jessica, and their children for seventeen months before he died.  My sweet dear friends that had been trying to be with me in different ways through my trauma grief work – now were trying to be with me through the loss of our son.  On-going crisis can really challenge friendships as everyone involved is weary and worn.  We had some friends that couldn’t go there with us in the loss of our son.  It was so painful to have friends that couldn’t actively grieve with us.  That created some distance in those relationships for a time.  That can create a wound in the friendship and the relationship is changed – mostly because I am changed – and so a friendship can feel strained and different.  But we must hold the reality of what it is now, and the question is, “What do I do with that friendship?”  Relationship 101: You can’t change the other person.  (I can barely change me!)  Do I experience more loss because my friend has not been able to grieve with me?  Or do I forgive the reality and eventually rebuild with what we have together?  I decided that I already had too much loss and I wasn’t going to lose someone else, if it was up to me.  Yes, friendships will now be different.  And so there is additional loss because it is different.  But it becomes something new.  There can still be love, but it looks different.  Sometimes I miss what some of the friendships were.  But the challenge is to be present with what is.  Relationship that is pretend doesn’t bless anyone.  

The goal with our friends, whether in crisis or not, is to be a safe place; to listen to their story, to see them, and to validate their pain.  I was tempted to say that for both parties to be a safe place, listen to each other’s stories, to really see each other and to validate each other’s pain.  BUT, we have no control over how someone else responds to us or if they choose to be present and really SEE us.  Because it’s never about fixing or judging someone else.  It’s about allowing God to transform me.  How present will I be?

“Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded.  It’s a relationship between equals.  Only when we know our own darkness well, can we be present with the darkness of others.”  Pema Chaldron

Kevin is my best friend.  This summer, I had a lot going on, good things like we took grandkids camping for our yearly camping trip – just the four of us.  Good stuff.  But there had been a bunch of ‘good things’ where I was not able to have my centering time.  I am an introvert.  I get centered and empowered by being alone and journaling and reading.  I had used up all my reserve resources and also had several friends in crisis  (my heart was heavy with their pain and trying to just hold it), so I was in an ‘empty’ state.  The tank was out of gas.  But I kept going.  We were getting ready for the next camping trip (which also had me in a panic because I wasn’t sure I could secure any ‘alone’ time to refill, and I knew things were desperate and dangerous).  Kevin was getting the trailer ready for the next trip while I was at work.  How sweet.  But I was in the ‘dark’ place, so when he told me he swept, washed the floor, and washed and changed sheets on the bed in the trailer (Wonderful right? You would think.), I asked, “What sheets did you put on the bed?”  (Because I was sure he put the wrong ones on it.)  He said the green ones. Sure enough!  I then transformed into one of those monsters from a Japanese Godzilla movie and with seaweed and drool dripping from my mouth, I said, “I haaaate those sheeeeets!” Then I turned and crawled back into my lair.

My scary response had nothing to do with sheets or Kevin. The reality is, it had to do with not being in control.  I couldn’t fix my friend’s pain, or get rid of the pancreatic cancer spreading throughout another dear friends body, or ease my son-in-laws heart that his mom has stage-four cancer, or ease my 96-year-old friend’s heart in her final days on this earth, or save my son (because new grief always grabs the hand of past grieves – especially if we never allowed ourselves space to grieve).  So, it all spilled out onto my husband and became about sheets!  With our friends, what we hold unconsciously, does spill out through our interactions, especially if something they are going through triggers something painful within me.  My favorite author and mentor, Richard Rohr says, “that if you don’t transform your pain, you will transmit it to those around you – your family, friends.”  And when two friends, are both living out of their unconscious stuff … Yikes!  The unconscious is very powerful.  There is a lot in there! Misunderstandings and conflict happens, and the sad reality, is that it’s often not really about what’s happening at this moment.  But it sure feels like it’s about sheets!  

One huge thing I can do is to be centered and to try to be open and honest with myself.   Whatever is in my story that has not been brought to the light – the unconscious stuff – I will pass on.  

Richard Rohr shares, “The fatal mistake of ego consciousness is that it excludes and eliminates the unconscious (where both deep goodness and deep badness lie hidden . . . But the human ego prefers knowing and being certain over being honest. ‘Don’t bother me with the truth, I want to be in control,’ it invariably says. Most people who think they are fully conscious or ‘smart’ and in control, have a big iron manhole cover over their unconscious. It does give them a sense of being right and in charge, but it seldom yields compassion, community, or wisdom.  We are led forward by brightness, a larger force field, that is willing to include the negative, the problematic, the difficult, the unknown — all of which I do not fully understand. ‘Take the log out of your own eye first and then you will see clearly,’ Jesus says (Luke 6:42). By the log, I think he is referring to the big thing we do not want to see, which many of us call ‘the shadow self.’ God’s brightness does not exclude or deny anything. Divine perfection is precisely the ability to include imperfection; whereas we think we must exclude, deny, and even punish it! The flow of grace is an increasing ability to forgive reality for being what it is … instead of what we want it to be!”

I want to end Part One of this blog on “being present with friends in crisis,” with some practical direction for identifying your shadow (which is everything within us that we don’t know about ourselves) – the unconscious stuff.  Here are some helpful thoughts from Scott Jeffrey’s book, “A Complete Guide to Working with Your Shadow.” 

“One of the best ways to identify your shadow is to pay attention to your emotional reactions toward other people.  Sure, your colleagues might be aggressive, arrogant, inconsiderate, or impatient, but if you don’t have those same qualities with in you, you won’t have a strong reaction to their behavior.  If you’re paying close attention, you can train yourself to notice your shadow when you witness a strong negative emotional response to others.  But we rarely have time to work with those emotions on the spot.  At the end of the day, it’s helpful to take five or ten minutes to reflect on your interactions with others and your related reactions.  

Whatever bothers you in another is likely a disowned part within yourself.  Get to know that part, accept it, make it a part of you and next time, it may not evoke a strong emotional charge when you observe it in another.” 

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4 Responses to Being Present with a Friend in the Hard Times (Part One)

  1. ale3120 says:

    The quote from Scott Jeffrey’s book at the end fits the article perfectly. I loved both it and your powerful words:)


  2. Carol Egan says:

    Helpful, knowing some of my own shortfalls
    Used as excuses for avoiding meaningful connections that would end by predictable final outcome.


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