Lana Barhum is a legal assistant, patient advocate, freelance writer, blogger, and single parent. She has lived with rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia since 2008 and uses her experiences to share expert advice on living successfully with chronic illness.
The Institute of Medicine reports that 100 million Americans suffer from conditions that result in chronic pain. Chronic pain conditions are often difficult to diagnose and treat because each person’s pain is unique.
Communication becomes vital to achieving and maintaining successful relationships with family members and friends for patients living with pain. This isn’t always easy because, often times, patients struggle to find the necessary dialogue to describe pain and feelings while loved ones struggle with their reactions.
Communication, or the lack of it, stands out for many living with chronic illness and pain and for their loved ones. It is an issue that causes frustration for all parties and people with chronic illness and pain communicate differently than those who aren’t sick.
There is a reluctance to communicate physical and emotional symptoms. Further, chronically ill people often say they are feeling “well” or “okay” despite the fact they are hurting. Sometimes, there is no way to describe how someone is feeling and other times, the chronically ill person just wants to be left alone. These obstacles are challenging and result in the breakdown in communication.
Communicating with a loved one in pain
People who live with pain do best when loved ones express concern for their hurting and offer support that is genuinely needed. Here are five ways you can communicate concern and support.
1. Listen. Being a good listener means hearing with your heart and not just your ears. People who listen with their hearts can read between the lines and interpret the non-verbal cues. Doing so means being alert to what is being said and how it is being said.
2. Be genuine. If you are not prepared to listen, don’t ask how someone is feeling. Your body language is a telltale sign that you are not listening to the speaker. The result is that the speaker will feel misunderstood and not seek your support in the future. Therefore, be genuine in your feelings or don’t ask.
3. Understand. People are often afraid talk about pain and the emotions associated because they fear ridicule or a lack of concern or sympathy from others. It is important to understand that just because someone isn’t communicating their pain, it does not mean they are not in pain. If you want to be understanding, show interest in that person and how they feeling. Believe them when they say they are in pain and rid yourself of the notions that pain sufferers are exaggerating or trying to gain sympathy. Don’t say hurtful things such as “you don’t look sick” or "this is something you can live with.” Rather, provide compassion and kind words.
4. Be honest. Many people struggle with the pain that a loved one goes through because they are not able to do anything about it. It is okay to admit you don’t have the answers rather than lying or avoiding that person. And if you don’t understand what your loved one is trying to express, say so instead of pretending that you do. Honesty is just as important as compassion and understanding.
5. Change perceptions. Pain may be physical, but it is also mental and emotional. Moreover, it is different for each individual, and managing it depends on the personality and the person dealing the pain. You should never assume you know the extent of a person’s pain unless you have actually been in their shoes.
Dealing with chronic pain is overwhelming for patients and their loved ones. It can be hard to comprehend or understand what a person’s pain is like if you have never experienced it. However, it does not mean that chronic pain sufferers should take on challenges alone. Loved ones can benefit by being compassionate, genuine and honest, by changing their views on pain, and through providing support and a listening ear. All these things go a long ways in helping someone who lives with daily pain.