When a friend’s son commits suicide or a co-worker’s sister dies, it’s hard to know what to say and do. Often, people worry they’re not a “huggy” enough person to be of comfort. But just reliably showing up is the first place to start, writes author Val Walker in a new book called The Art of Comforting: What To Say and Do For People In Distress.
Walker, who trains counsellors to help people deal with grief and loss, writes, “I’ve heard grieving and distraught people lament how others didn’t follow through with their promises, which hurt them more than anyone’s lack of affection or warmth. Their friendly, sunny friends who promised to ‘be there’ for them dropped off the face of the Earth after they dropped off their casseroles during the first week of the tragedy.”
A distressed person will be comforted if you tell them, “I can call you Monday night,” but then make sure you call. “People in distress suffer more when they are left in the dark about when contact will be made. No one wants to appear needy by having to call out for help.”
If you’re not the touchy-feely type, you can offer to walk their dog or pick up groceries. “The one who runs the errands is as comforting as the one who gives the hugs.” And if you’re not skilled at heart-to-heart talks, just show up and listen. Walker gives the example of a mother whose 14-year-old son committed suicide. “Two friends came to visit me and invited me to take a long walk with them. My friends only said about four sentences the whole evening. But in that silence I felt their love and care in waves of comfort streaming from their hearts.”
Walker believes silence is sometimes better than trying to fix the person’s problem. “We think helping someone in pain means helping them ‘get over’ the problem, fast.” But “healing means learning to live with loss, rather than getting over it completely,” she writes.
Another piece of advice: don’t try to put a person’s pain into perspective for them. Don’t say, for example, “You think your foreclosure was bad. The hurricane Katrina folks had it much worse than you.” She gives another example, a woman, Jan, recently divorced. At dinner, Jan’s friends chided her, “It’s lonelier being in a bad marriage than being single. You’re free now.” Walker writes, “Her friends might have meant well, but Jan got the message that her distressed feelings were unwarranted, and therefore she was not worthy of their sympathy.”
At work, comforting a colleague is a more “delicate process,” writes Walker. She writes about the woman who rushed to hug a co-worker who had just returned from a month-long bereavement leave. “[The bereaved co-worker] was absolutely frozen and barely moved her arms when I held her. I was so embarrassed that I quickly excused myself. I could hardly look her in the eyes and she avoided looking at me. I felt so shocked by her response to my hug that I ran out to my car in the parking lot to have a good little cry.”
A card or email might be more appropriate than physical contact at work. Walker suggests, “Send a ‘thinking of you’ card,” but beware of unhelpful platitudes such as ‘God doesn’t give you any more than you can handle.’ Instead write, “It sounds like this is really hard.”
People who haven’t experienced a similar tragedy often retreat from offering comfort, afraid they won’t be able to empathize properly. Walker, who is divorced and childless, confesses that she used to lack confidence when comforting parents who had lost a child. She used to worry: “How dare I try to know the pain of parents whose children have died?” But now she shares the advice of Alicia Rasin, a victims’ advocate who works with parents of murdered children. Rasin, who is also childless, told Walker, “I let their sorrow touch my own sorrow—my sorrow about my dad who died, or my friend who is sick. We are all human and sorrow is in all of us. It’s okay if you don’t know what to say when someone is in pain, as long as you can say with all your heart, ‘I am right here with you.’ People will believe you care if you just show up, even if you don’t have much to say.”