As we were about to end our tea conversation, my friend made an unexpected proposal. She had clearly thought about it for some time and felt the need to broach it carefully. She paused, cleared her throat and asked me not to take what she was about to say in the “wrong way”. She then offered to leave a sum of money with me to help those who needed professional counselling but could not afford to pay for it.
I was surprised – although similar offers had been made before, they were to cover the cost for specific individuals, e.g. for a relative. But here was an offer to cover the cost for strangers.
My friend is no stranger to counselling and, more specifically, to its costs and benefits. I had met her and her husband years earlier when they came to me for marital counselling. The sessions continued on an on-and-off basis for about seven years, during which their relationship waxed and waned. After her husband’s repeated infidelity, she decided that she had had enough and sued for divorce.
Now, years later, she had moved on. Her career had grown, her children had married and she had found faith in God. An unexpected but not surprising development was that she found herself continuing an association with counselling. Women going through a difficult marriage or even divorce were seeking her out. This brought her to wonder about a greater purpose for her own marital experience. Hearing about others’ pain and reflecting on her difficult journey prompted her to think of a way she could help.
As counsellors, we see this from time to time. For example, we hear of those who had lost a family member through suicide reaching out to other bereaved family members. What prompts this help-giving behaviour? Perhaps it is prompted by a desire to make sense of their grief or to give their pain a purpose.
Helping professionals are admittedly cautious about such help-giving behaviour. We have two primary concerns.
First, some may be driven to reaching out to others as a means of bringing closure to their experiences. If so, their focus is not on the needs of those they are helping but on themselves. It is their agenda that dominates and if overly focused on their own needs, they may be insensitive to the other’s pain.
The second concern is that in helping others, the helpers’ own emotions may be triggered by the other’s experiences. This could then lead to another round of distress for themselves.
With my friend, I do not have such concerns. I believe that she has worked through the issues and enough time has passed since her marriage ended for her to re-engage her experiences with others safely. I also believe that being able to speak with others about her divorce continues to re-affirm her decision and aids in her healing journey. In helping, she is indirectly helped.
There is yet another benefit of such peer support. This is when those hurting can find hope invigorated by witnessing how others have survived personal tragedy. Hearing and seeing how others have made it through their dark period can be a priceless encouragement.
None of us is immune to facing difficulties in this life. When by God’s grace and strength we have found the means to resolve or cope with challenges, might we in turn help others? In so doing, each of us in our small way can live by the words of the late Mother Teresa: “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.”
Benny Bong –
has been a family and marital therapist for more than 30 years, and is a certified work-life consultant. He was the first recipient of the AWARE Hero Award in 2011 and is a member of Kampong Kapor Methodist Church.
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