#3: Making Meaning Out of Suffering

Dear Birdie,

My friend’s husband abuses her. I have known them both for about five years (we are neighbors), and our daughters play together often. My friend and her daughter have left the home multiple times but always return. This last time, my friend got a restraining order against her husband, and he was forced to leave.

Last night, he violated the restraining order. She called me in a panic when she noticed he was standing on the front porch. My friend hasn’t called the police because she’s afraid that her husband will get arrested.

I want to help my friend, but I don’t know what to do. I was in an abusive relationship for over ten years, and seeing my friend hurt like this feels unbearable. Is there anything I can do to help her get away from this terrible man while also protecting myself?

Signed,

Neighbor in Knots


Dear Neighbor in Knots,

Having counseled and walked with over a dozen women as they navigated abusive relationships, I know the deep, raging river of sorrow you feel when you think about the anguish your friend is experiencing.

Your letter sits heavily with me, Neighbor in Knots, because I am also a survivor of domestic abuse and sexual assault. I tried to leave an abusive relationship countless times, and I still bear the emotional scars of that terrifying season of my life, as I’m sure you do as well.

You are doing a powerful thing, my sister, by entering into the pain of another and trying to help. I’m not a professional counselor, but I am a truth-teller. And I think women who are having a difficult time seeing the truth of their own lives are drawn to people like you and me who own our stories and share our truth boldly. You have an opportunity here to love your friend well, but you must do a few things first.

  1. You must prioritize your own emotional health. It is easy to get drawn into the pain of someone you love. Your empathy is a beautiful quality, but it can also be your demise. There have been times, as I have helped women find safety from abusive relationships, that I’ve had to step back and allow myself to breathe. It can feel selfish, but it is important. It is okay to tap out when things get too much. It is okay to say, “I don’t feel equipped to help you with this part.” You cannot help someone in a meaningful way if your emotional health is compromised. This kind of boundary looks different for everyone, but I encourage you to figure out what it looks like for you to maintain emotional health while also supporting someone you care about.
  2. You must ask your friend what she wants in her relationship. You and I both know that this situation is bad news, but unless your friend is willing to take the steps necessary to leave, what you think and what you want doesn’t matter a hill of beans. There are a million reasons why victims of domestic abuse choose to stay, and it sounds to me like she is not yet ready to leave. That is her right, and as her friend, you have been given a gift. You have a special opportunity to model what a healthy relationship looks like by hearing her, respecting her perspective, and honoring her boundaries.
  3. Remember that it is not your job to rescue your neighbor from her relationship or fix this problem in her life. When you were being abused, no one could save you but you. When I was being abused, it didn’t matter how many people approached me about my relationship and how unhealthy it was; I had to make that decision and do the things necessary to be free. Once you wrap your head and heart around this truth, you will be able to support your friend as she walks her path to freedom.

A few years ago, I experienced the failure of a relationship.. the kind of failure that jerks the rug from beneath your feet and renders you flat on your back. Knowing the depth of pain I was experiencing, a friend of mine recommended the book Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist and survivor of the Holocaust.

Within minutes of his recommendation, I downloaded a digital version of the book and settled in. I’m pretty sure I read the book in two evenings. (And that’s saying a lot for a single mama!)

One of the lessons I learned from that book and that excruciatingly painful loss was this: it is up to me to make meaning out of the suffering I experience in this world. I remember the fierce resolve I felt to not waste the pain; I wanted to let it soak into my bones and change me in a way that nothing else could.

What’s so inspiring to me about your letter, Neighbor, is that you are living that out right now. You are making meaning out of the suffering you experienced to help someone else change their life. It’s hard for me to imagine anything else more beautiful.

Your letter is timely, sweet Neighbor, considering October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. My heart breaks for your friend and her daughter and for you too as you watch this abuse unfold. I know it is maddening and heartbreaking and terrifying all at once. I will be linking some other resources at the end of this post that will hopefully help you – and our Dear Birdie readers – as you go about the business of supporting someone who is being abused.

Thank you for your truth, thank you for your courage. Through your pain, you are making the world a more beautiful and safe place.

Yours,

Birdie

Check out the following resources if you or someone you know is being abused:

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