When someone is in pain, from an injury or chronic condition, it may seem impossible to comfort them. You can provide immediate first aid, get them to a medical facility, and maybe even help them find pain medication, but emotionally supporting them is just as important. Pain is, after all, a subjective, emotional experience as much as it is a physical one, and if you can get through the emotional aspect, the physical aspect will be far easier to manage.

So how can you support someone whose pain is difficult to understand, or whose pain is unbearable for them?

Understand the Situation

First, attempt to understand the situation, as there are many different types of pain. A dental emergency, for example, will usually be associated with a sudden and extreme amount of pain that will likely subside once the person is getting medical attention. Cystic fibrosis, by stark contrast, will likely be associated with lingering musculoskeletal pain that’s hard to describe, and may persist for days at a time. Know what type of pain you’ll be dealing with, and prepare accordingly.

Listen to Their Experience

One of the best things you can do for a person in pain is to simply listen to their experience. What are they thinking? What are they feeling? They may wish to describe the pain to you, or they may wish to describe how they’re feeling in general—such as if they’re angry that this happened to them, or if they feel depressed they won’t be able to resume their normal activities. Make them feel heard, and pay attention to anything they express as a core need.

Distract Them With Activities

If there’s no direct way to reduce the pain (such as with more comfortable accommodations or with painkillers), your next best option is to distract them from the pain. This may include playing a game with them, watching a movie together, or just holding an interesting conversation. If the person is mobile, consider going outside and engaging in an activity together; anything that demands focus is good here.

Tell Them Stories

Sometimes, the pain will be so intense the person is not able and/or not willing to speak. If this is the case, you may be able to help by filling the silence with stories of your own. You can talk about times you’ve spent together, or describe things you want to do together in the future. If you’re stuck on ideas, or if you don’t know the person that well, you could simply read to them from a book.

Help With Daily Responsibilities (Without Asking)

If the person is experiencing pain for longer than a few hours, consider pitching in to help with daily responsibilities. You can get groceries for them, or cook dinner and bring it to them. You can help clean their house, or watch their children for them. If you can, offer these services instead of asking something general like “is there anything I can do?” Some people will be more willing to accept specifically offered help than they will be to ask for it.

Don’t Ask About the Pain

You might be tempted to ask about their pain levels, especially as the days go on, but try to avoid this if possible. Asking about the pain will remind them that the pain is there, even if it’s subsided temporarily. If there are significant changes, they’ll let you know. In the meantime, focus on other ways of supporting them.

Forgive Any Changes in Personality

While in pain, you aren’t able to resume life as you used to know it. Coupled with the intense distress of actually experiencing the pain, this can lead to some significant changes in personality. Someone in pain may lash out at you, even if you’re close and on good terms. They may not respond to things like they usually do. They may be easily angered or become somewhat hostile. You’ll need to forgive this, and remain patient throughout the situation.

Bring Some of Their Favorite Things

If someone’s pain requires them to be hospitalized, or if they’re stuck at home, try to bring them some of their favorite things, whether that’s the latest copy of a magazine, their favorite restaurant meal, or one of their favorite hobbies. Best of all, bring yourself, and stop by often.

Pain isn’t easy to deal with, either for the
person experiencing it directly or for the person attempting to comfort them,
but even the most basic lines of support can make a big impact. Stay positive throughout the
experience, and remain as open and as flexible as you can. Pain is almost
always temporary, and with additional support, it will only become easier to
manage over time.