Sometimes, as an attempt to comfort your heart as you are struggling through a new diagnosis, or even years afterward, friends or family might offer consolation by saying something along the lines of, “God chose to give you a child with autism because He knew you were strong enough”, or one of my personal favorites, “He will never give you any more than you can handle”, or even the Biblical reminder that “all things work together for the good of those who love Him”. But for the parent receiving these desperate words which are intended to comfort, they are instead driven further to despair. No parent is “special enough” or “strong enough” to be endowed with the high calling to raising a child with special needs. No, we are ordinary people, given extraordinary life circumstances that are not based on any special character qualities we have, or on the incredible accomplishments in our past that showed God we were capable of facing such responsibility.
That little phrase of encouragement comes from I Corinthians 10:13, “No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, that you may be able to endure it.” I do not think that this verse can be reworded to say that God doesn’t burden us with more than we can stand. This verse is speaking specifically about temptation toward idolatry. It is talking about temptation to sin, not a life circumstance that is difficult to deal with. In addition, the manufactured statement above also does not give any indication that there is a way around the circumstance for which it is applied. It would be contradictory to say, “God will not give you anything that you cannot handle” and at the same time encourage them to take their worries to God. If they can handle it on their own, they have no need to take anything to God. There are three arguments against this.
First of all, to have someone cheerfully say to the mom who feels like she can’t handle her child, and is constantly grieving and crying at every outburst, “Don’t worry! God won’t give you more than you can handle!” is a smack across the face. Apparently, she is the exception to the rule, and a sentiment such as this can easily make her feel as though she is an enormous failure. If God won’t give her what she can’t bear, and she’s clearly unable to bear this, then either she is a failure, or God is. The Christian mom would have to conclude that it must be the former that is true; otherwise, she would have no hope at all if she believed that God had failed. So now, not only does she feel like an utter failure because of her obvious weakness, but she may also feel invalidated and marginalized as to the severity of her situation.
Secondly, I am a firm believer that God does, in fact, put more on His beloved children than they are capable of handling on their own. How could I say such a thing? Think about what we are saying when we insist God reserves the unbearable for us. It means that we would never need God. If we are able to handle everything that comes our way all by our little selves, then we have no reason to ever rely on the Almighty God who is certain to come to our rescue. We would never need a Savior if we could take care of that pesky thing called sin on our own. I actually think that if we are to ever come to the place of fully trusting God, then we must first be crushed. Our world needs to fall apart and crumble around us so that we have no other choice but to fling ourselves at the foot of the cross where love and mercy meet.
Third, I personally don’t want God to expect me to handle my trials on my own because I am sinful, and I am only able to address what I am facing with a sinful heart. My heart is selfish. When Samuel is having a meltdown over what I thought was such a minor issue, sometimes, I am immediately frustrated. He is messing up my plans with this “thing” that I now have to deal with—on my own of course, since I am able to "handle it." Being the imperfect parent that I am, perhaps I won’t stop to recall my ABA parent training right then and instead react out of pure emotion. Maybe my aggravation will show through and I will raise my voice to him, worsening the situation. It’s possible that my imperfect, wrong and sinful reactions will exacerbate the meltdown resulting in ineffective communication and will most likely restart me on the grief cycle all over again. I have no recourse at this junction except to cry out to God. I cannot handle this on my own.
What, then, should others say to comfort their hurting friend or family member? Here are a few suggestions:
Nothing. Sometimes, words aren’t necessary. Even the very presence of someone who cares is enough. I have a friend who can immediately sense when I am having a hard day, either over the phone or in person. I might sound cheery, but she knows something is off. I might not have smeared mascara, but she can see it. She gives the best, tight hugs and she just rubs my back. She won’t say anything at all except maybe, “I’m sorry…” and stands (or sits) next to me, sweetly rubbing my back until I’m ready to say something. Just having a dear friend sit with me and let me cry or collect my thoughts is comfort enough.
Validate. If a mom or dad tries to talk about how they feel, or why they are having a difficult day, don’t minimize it by trying to fix it right away. Unless they are asking outright what they should do, you don’t need to provide a solution. They need to hear that they are not crazy for feeling what they do. They need to know that it’s okay to grieve, be upset, frustrated or downright angry. If they say nothing, then you say nothing (see above). If they voice their hurt, repeat it back to them in the affirmative. For instance, a girlfriend calls you just to vent about her son’s autism. “It’s just SO hard!” she cries. The only thing you really need to say right away is, “I know it’s hard. I’m so sorry.” Wait for her to add to the story about what specifically is hard because she usually will. It’s possible she might give the details of whatever events have led up to these strong emotions, in which case you should…
Affirm. Not only do you validate that she has every reason to be frustrated, but tell her that she is doing a great job (name what she did if she tells you). She may argue, pointing out the inadequacy she feels by saying she doesn’t know what she’s doing and can’t do anything right. Be confidently positive with her during this period. “Liz, I’ve seen you with your son and I know how awesome you are with him. You are doing a great job, even if it doesn’t feel like it.” You may not feel like you have the "right" words to say. But that's okay, because she knows you don't have any magic answers just as much as you do. I am positive that she will appreciate your willingness to talk and be with her.
Non-encouraging words are typically anything cliché, or Bible verses taken out of context, as described above. Even comparing lives can just make things worse, reminding her that her son is different, and yours is not. This would be saying something like, “I can’t imagine being in your shoes.” Not even she wants to be in her own shoes right then.
Even though we do experience hard, hard things in life, more than we can bear at times, we are not without hope. Hopefully, you have at least one or two close friends who can be available for you when and how you need them. If you feel alone, cry out to God. He promises never to leave you. He promises to hold you up, to strengthen you with His power, and to comfort your aching heart. One of my favorite verses is Psalm 61:2. I don't mind if you borrow it:
From the end of the earth will I cry unto thee, when my heart is overwhelmed: lead me to the rock that is higher than I.
Never forget—you are not alone.