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Eighteen months ago, my mother was diagnosed with colon cancer, and my father's rare neurological disease took a hairpin turn for the worse. Their busy lives dissolved into months of treatments, complications, and worst-case scenarios.

Caring for them has been my first real experience with prolonged suffering. I had no clue about the malaise that can spawn from the union of chronic pain and diminished hope. My parents have been heroic. But they have also groped for the meaning of their pain and its remedy, and have found neither.

Through it all I have tried to offer comfort, and I've watched others do the same. Sometimes our words have been balms. Sometimes they have been hand grenades.

I recently asked friends online what words and actions had been the least helpful in trying times, and I got a passionate and prolific response. I recognized many of the platitudes listed as things that had come out of my mouth.

Many responses fell into a category I call "Invalidation of the Present Pain." With a bombastic mix of well-meaning fervor and unconscious impatience, we attempt to rush our wounded friend to closure. Classics include "It will all work out in the end," "Time heals all wounds," and glib recitations of Romans 8:28.

Many of those responses are wonderfully true. But so is Jesus' observation that it's those who mourn who are comforted (Matt. 5:4). He knew better than anyone the Happy Ending that awaits us, yet he was deeply respectful of the pain of our present condition. John 11:35 tells us that when Jesus' friend died, he wept; the Greek word refers to a passionate outpouring of grief. So perhaps it is more Christlike to feel pain rather than to try to expedite it.

Other replies revealed what I call "Formula Thinking," an ...

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