What We Believe

Loving a Hurting Neighbor

Patricia E. Clawson

New Horizons: January 2022

Coming Alongside in a Crisis

Also in this issue

Coming Alongside in a Crisis

Reflecting on Disability in the Church

When I had breast cancer twenty-four years ago, folks from our congregation and presbytery showed the love of Christ by encouraging us with cards, meals, flowers, offers of help, and especially prayers during that difficult time. One friend’s daily emails demonstrated that I wasn’t forgotten.

With a clean bill of health a year later, I tried to imitate her by periodically sending emails to a pastor and a new mother who both struggled with difficult cancers. Surely, I had a handle on loving my neighbor in crisis.

Challenges of Caring Well

Such confidence melted a decade later when a dear church friend fought a precarious battle with lymphoma. She had asked for help that was far more challenging than sending emails. I couldn’t say no. Her husband’s job required him to often be in Virginia weekdays while she underwent chemo and radiation. Without his work, they wouldn’t have insurance. Her well-organized daughter from California offered direction, but they needed someone on the ground to coordinate volunteers to enact those plans.

What a challenge to find willing women who were healthy, didn’t have sniffly kids when her immune system was low, weren’t too busy working or homeschooling, and could climb the stairs! Volunteers were needed to shop for groceries, provide meals, drive her to the doctors or hospital for treatments, wash her sheets and clothes, make beds, clean their home, give her water and chemo medications, sit with her during the day, or stay overnight when her husband was out of town.

About a dozen women emerged as instruments of mercy. Despite the daughter’s organization, the task of enlisting volunteers and ensuring that all was accomplished became overwhelming. My work responsibilities and the growing needs of my long-distance widowed mother added stress. Stretched to my limit, I made mistakes. Thankfully the daughter sensed my situation and stepped into the coordinator role instead.

Since then, I’ve cared for my mother through her dementia and for a pew buddy during her last months, ran errands for a bedridden pastor, and was the primary caregiver for my daughter when she battled cancer and passed into glory. During those times and through two surgeries, I witnessed many servants of Christ walk alongside the hurting, including us. How they buoyed our faith!

Practical Advice for Caregiving

This may lead you to think I now know what I’m doing when it comes to caregiving. But you would be wrong. I have made countless mistakes that still bring me sorrow, embarrassment, and shame. I’ve said the wrong thing, didn’t protect someone’s privacy, forgot that I was there for the patient’s needs and not my own, or simply didn’t know how I could help.

How I wished I had earlier come across a book called Alongside: A Practical Guide for Loving Your Neighbor in Their Time of Trial by Sarah Beckman. This is the first resource I have found that gives detailed, practical instructions on what to do, say, and think when someone needs help in a crisis. Beckman, who attends an Assembly of God congregation, writes with wisdom gleaned from her own difficult trials and from asking many suffering believers to share what helped or hurt them.

Four things emerged. First, of course, we must biblically base our response to someone’s suffering on Jesus’s commands to love the Lord with all our heart, soul, and mind, and to love our neighbor as ourselves (Matt. 22:36–39). Since God ranks loving our neighbor second only to loving himself, Beckman says we should consider it our God-given responsibility, even though it is hard to know what to do and even harder to do it. God will be our help. 

In our hearts we understand this, but sometimes our feelings get in the way of truly helping. Beckman’s second reminder is crucial: “It’s not about you.” We sometimes offer help but end up making it about us—our grief, our need to be “in the know,” or our desire to be appreciated. The hurting person may not be thinking clearly, so we should give grace and forgiveness when needed, be sensitive and humble, and respect the person’s privacy. After upsetting my daughter by sharing private concerns as a church prayer request, I learned to run all requests past her first. Other practical tips include keeping visits short and acknowledging the crisis but not dwelling on it every time you see them. Put their needs first. It’s not about you.

If God is “nudging” your heart to help but you wonder whether you are the best person to handle a task, Beckman thirdly offers a “tier” system to aid you. A Tier 1 caregiver is a close family member or friend who handles the more intimate needs, such as choosing a wig or accompanying the loved one to the doctor. Friends, neighbors, church members, and coworkers are Tier 2. If there is an emergency, pray for strength and wisdom, then step in. At the start of a crisis, a Tier 1 or 2 person is needed to coordinate the needs and organize the many volunteer offers, as I tried to do with my friend.

An acquaintance or friend by association would be Tier 3, and someone you don’t know—a neighbor perhaps—is a Tier 4 relationship. Be careful about forcing yourself into an acquaintance’s life even with the best of intentions, Beckman warns. Pray for them and help with less intimate needs, such as mowing the lawn. Remember: it’s not about you. The tier concept allows you to consider the depth of your relationship and keeps you from jumping in inappropriately.

When offering appropriate help, Beckman fourthly shares how best to keep our eyes on a hurting person’s needs. Don’t say, “Let me know what I can do.” You will not receive a response. Give specific offers: “I’d love to pick up groceries for you or drive your son to practice.” Respect them if they say no. For Tier 2 friends, I ran errands, picked up medications and their mail, cleaned out their fridge when they were hospitalized, watered plants, took out the trash, and drove them to appointments. You could help the caregiver too by offering to stay with the hurting person for a few hours, babysit the kids, or walk the dog.

Sitting silently, as Job’s friends did at first, may be the greatest help. When our daughter was in the NICU, a friend brought magazines for me and her knitting, and told me we didn’t have to talk.

When we do speak, Beckman reminds us that nothing we say can take away someone’s pain. Unless you are close, it’s best to simply voice, “Sorry for your loss.” Let them know you care, affirm feelings that they have expressed, and empathize: “I’m here for you.” When someone dies, share memories and your appreciation of the loved one. Think more and say less. Especially avoid comments like, “Heaven needed them more than you.”

Remind them of who God is and how he loves them by praying, texting, sending notes and cards, and calling. “Any reminder of Whose they are instead of what their current circumstance is can be a powerful weapon against the lies of the enemy” (124). Choose Scripture verses that speak of God’s character. Ask if you could pray out loud with them, which few others are likely to do. “Nothing is more worthwhile than shepherding a loved one in prayer to the throne room of grace” (128).

When the diagnosis is difficult, Beckman suggests that “if they don’t ask your advice, don’t give it.” If you have been through the same situation, your experience may be helpful, but keep the focus on them, not yourself. Skip the horror stories.

One Body

As God created each member of his body with special gifts, consider how your gifts would be beneficial in this trial. One friend used her floral arranging skills to create our daughter’s funeral flowers. She also gave a pedicure to our bedridden friend. Another friend’s financial know-how helped a new widow plan for her future. A saint played his banjo for a sick teen. A friend gave me handmade cards to use as thank-you notes.

Although I’ve walked alongside a few folks, Beckman’s book added many pieces to the puzzle of caregiving. It’s not often that I finish a book with a prayer, thanking God for the author’s insight. But this time I did.   

The author is a member of Calvary OPC in Glenside, Pennsylvania.

Alongside: A Practical Guide for Loving Your Neighbor in Their Time of Trial by Sarah Beckman. Morgan James Publishing, 2017.

New Horizons, January 2022.

New Horizons: January 2022

Coming Alongside in a Crisis

Also in this issue

Coming Alongside in a Crisis

Reflecting on Disability in the Church

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