Barf Bag

True friends hold the Emotional Barf Bag for you.  Photo credit Debbie Lillo.





Much has been written about how folks get it wrong:  What not to say or do to a special needs parent, or how family fails to support them.  Here’s how a supportive friend got it right.





I have a dear friend named Cindy.  Someone like me might consider Cindy an “unlikely” friend.  Why?  Between Cindy and her husband, they have fistfuls of advanced degrees from Ivy League schools, and successful careers in the upper echelons of academia and scientific research.  They also raise three healthy, exceptionally bright daughters who excel in their high-performing schools and extra-curricular activities.  Cindy’s family, they is smart.  Like, really, really smart.

I, on the other hand, have no collection of advanced degrees.  In my academic history, “AP” meant Academic Probation, not Advanced Placement.  And unlike Cindy’s children, my eleven year old with autism is still working on potty training and forming sentences.


Slaying the Green Eyed Monster

It’d be easy for a person like to me to want to have nothing to do with excellent Cindy and her accomplished family.  But she remains one of my dearest friends, who has steadfastly friended me through my ugliest moments of cussing out the heavens and feeling plenty sorry for myself.

How?  She loves on me too well, for me to hate on her too bad.  Despite being a tactful and considerate person, she’s consistently crashed every pity party I’ve ever tried to throw for myself.  And I love her for it.   Love covers a multitude of sins, including relational poisons (all mine) of comparison, insecurity and envy.

Just how does a non-special needs friend support a special needs parent-friend?  Here’s how my excellent friend –with no prior experience or exposure to special needs– got it right.  


Just listen

Cindy and I served on staff at the same church when my son was diagnosed with autism.  At the peak of my brokenness and grief, it would have been understandable if she had admonished me to sound better, to behave or manage myself better in a matter befitting a ministry leader.  But Cindy implicitly gave me permission to be real, to voice my raw feelings of rage and confusion, without fear of judgment.  I can’t underscore enough what a gift that is.

She didn’t try to “say the right thing,” nor did she advise me to.   No pat Bible verses, bumper sticker expressions or shallow platitudes.  After all, there is no “right answer,” and certainly no easy ones.  The only answer that could have helped anyway was, “I have the cure for autism.”

But you can’t go wrong with listening.   As Pastor Rick Warren concluded after the death of his son,


Cindy showed up and shut up.  She let me do the talking.  That helped me process my jumbled thoughts and feelings… and to heal.  More than words could ever say.


Holding the emotional barf bag


It’s kind of like when you’re nauseated or have the stomach flu, there’s not much anyone could say to remedy how lousy you feel.  You just have to let it pass.  But it’s a comfort to have someone you feel comfortable with, to just sit with you when you’re at your yuckiest.

She might just stand by with a trash bin in case you need to vomit.  Maybe she’ll pull back your sweaty hair, soothe and rub you on the shoulder while you retch and suffer it through.  And when all heaving is done, while you’re slumped over and spent of energy, she’ll quietly mop everything up and dispose of it for you.  All without a word.

It’s the same with being heartsick.  Trauma and grief are vile pathogens that disease the spirit.  Though you may try to suppress it and keep it all down (“I’m fine, really!”) all that sick and sour has been bubbling up in your soul.  It will expel itself somehow.

The sooner you purge it, the better you’ll feel.  It’s a blessing to have a compassionate friend standing by, who’s willing to hold the emotional barf bag as you vent all that filth and foul that’s been scalding your insides.

A true friend understands this violent upheaval is temporary.  All that verbal acid spewing out of you is not the normal, healthy you;  it’s symptomatic of a heartsick you.  You’re fighting off emotional pestilence that’s infected your system.

With sympathy, this friend receives it with graciousness.  She may even get splashed a bit on accident.  But she doesn’t judge.  She bags it up and discreetly disposes it for you.  Whether it’s sickness in body or in spirit, a true friend loves at all times.

There, there.  Feels better, doesn’t it?


Just be there

The etymology of compassion is “co-suffering,” to suffer with.  Even Jesus, who being in very nature God, needed friends to just be with Him; to just sit with Him in His darkest hour,


They went to a place called Gethsemane, and Jesus said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” He took Peter, James and John  along with him, and he began to be deeply distressed and troubled. “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,” he said to them. “Stay here and keep watch.”

Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. “Abba, Father,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.”

Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. “Simon,” he said to Peter, “are you asleep? Couldn’t you keep watch for one hour? Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

Once more he went away and prayed the same thing. When he came back, he again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy. They did not know what to say to him.

~ Mark 14: 32-42



There was nothing these friends could have done to alleviate His Burden.  There was nothing they could have said to improve His situation.  But because Christ was fully human in every way, and faced every temptation and trial known to man, He, too, experienced needing the company of faithful friends in His time of suffering.  All He asked was that they be there for Him.  And we judge Him not for it.

How much more so, a mere mortal mom like me has needed faithful friends to just be with me, to co-suffer with me, and to hold an emotional barf bag for me.

I’ve been blessed by Cindy (and many others) who succeeded where Peter, James and John may have failed.  Sometimes, when you don’t know what to say to a friend in suffering, it’s best to say nothing.  But be there.  “Show up and shut up.”  I pray every special needs parent has at least one friend to listen, to sit, to suffer, to cry and to pray together.


In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.

Romans 8:26-27


Happy birthday to my unlikely and excellent friend Cindy.  I thank God for the life-giving life you live.  You bless and enrich lives like mine.  



  1. Do you have a “Cindy” in your life?  In what concrete ways does he/she get it right?
  2. Have you gone back to thank this friend?  I bet they’d appreciate the affirmation.
  3.  Who can you be a Cindy to?


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