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How To: Help Someone in Pain

Illustration of a person kneeling and holding out a heart to a person who is huddled up and appears to be under a dark cloud

“…the art of happiness is also the art of suffering well.”

―Thích Nhất Hạnh, No Mud, No Lotus: The Art of Transforming Suffering

When a loved one has experienced loss or trauma, you want to reach out and support them, but how do you speak to someone about an unspeakable loss? Psychology professor and licensed marriage and family therapist (MFT) Kyle Horst offers some tips.

Kyle Horst sits with a pleasant smile in his office, ready to welcome therapy clients
Kyle Horst is an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology and supervises student counselors in training for the Marriage and Family Therapy program. (Jason Halley / University Photographer)

Ears open, mouth shut

When someone asks me, “What do I say to someone who is hurting?” My answer is typically, “Nothing!” After the smile fades from their face, folks realize I am not joking. At this point I follow up with, “The more your mouth is open, the more your ears are closed.” In reality, there is little we can say to “take away” someone’s pain. Pain and suffering, after all, are life’s greatest teachers. Instead, we need to be present, or as some call it, “hold space” for the person’s pain. Sit, listen, lend a shoulder, but don’t worry about what you need to say.


Expressing empathy is an art. We all have that person in our life who we feel just gets us, but it is often hard to describe how and why we feel that way. As a faculty member training new therapists, I often am thinking about how I can teach someone to be more empathic. I have yet to find the perfect lesson plan, but I have a found a few shortcuts. First is the practice of validation. Validation is the process of recognizing the power and weight of an experience. It isn’t about agreeing or approving. It is about honoring what that person is going through. This might not sound complicated, but statements like, “I can’t imagine what this feels like,” or “I’m sorry to hear this,” are often all it takes.


Often, in the thick of pain and suffering, it can feel like we are all alone, like nobody else can truly understand the depth of hurt we are experiencing. This is often why those in pain have such a hard time asking for help. Normalizing is the process of letting someone know they are not alone. Don’t let the name confuse—normalizing is not about making pain normal, as this can be incredibly invalidating. It is about letting someone know that they aren’t “broken”—that their reaction to an experience is not abnormal and anyone in their shoes might react that same way. It is about absolving any judgment or guilt in someone’s response to pain. It’s about saying, “Given all you’ve been through, I can totally understand you’d feel this way.”

Don’t ask “How are you doing?” Ask “What do you need?”

Sometimes pain and suffering can be so overwhelming it shuts us down. Seemingly simple tasks can become insurmountable and confusing. Questions like “How are you?” can be met with blank stares. “How are you?” might seem like a relatively innocuous question, but it may require a degree of self-awareness not available in the midst of suffering. It might be too big of a question. Instead, I recommend focusing on real needs in the moment. “What do you need right now?” invites action on your part. It is about meeting the person where they are at in their hurting. Words alone rarely remove the pain, but a warm blanket, a hot meal, or a trip to the store might just do the trick.

Make room for resilience

In her book My Sister’s Keeper, author Jodi Picoult writes, “The human capacity for burden is like bamboo—far more flexible than you’d ever believe at first glance.” We are capable of extreme strength under situations of extreme stress. Viktor Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, explains in his book Man’s Search for Meaning how the result of pain and suffering can be greater meaning and purpose in life. Frankl and his work demonstrate the incredible fortitude of the human will to survive. As a therapist, I am often guilty of overlooking the resilience of my clients in my pursuit of problems. I am constantly reminding myself to look for and comment on the aspects of my client’s life where they show great strength.

Recognize when to refer

Sometimes trauma can have serious detrimental results. Although responses to trauma are natural and expected, and do not necessarily represent problematic symptoms, it is important to be aware of warning signs for potentially hazardous responses that may indicate the development of a post-traumatic stress response: 

  • Excessive or obtrusive worry
  • Crying often
  • Trouble thinking clearly
  • Reliving the experience (flashbacks)
  • Excessive anger
  • Nightmares or difficulty sleeping
  • Avoiding places or people that bring back disturbing memories and responses
  • Headaches, nausea, or other somatic responses

In these cases, connecting someone to professional help is in their best interest.

For those interested in reading more about traumatic responses, the National Institute on Mental Health and the American Counseling Organization are recommended resources.  

Kyle Horst is an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology and supervises student counselors in training for the Marriage and Family Therapy program. His research interests include couple conflict and mindfulness-based interventions.