When someone you care about is going through a difficult time, often we struggle with not knowing what to say or what to do. We tend to use cliché phrases such as, “Things will get better. You’ll get through this,” but such phrases seldom help at all. So, what do you do when you’re completely lost for words? When you really want to do something, but you don’t want to make anything worse?
The problem with comforting people is that everyone receives comfort differently. There is some practical advice that can be applied to most people. Val Walker, a grief counselor and author of The Art of Comforting: What to Say and Do for People in Distress, says one of the most important things to do is be present and listen. She says communication is 80% nonverbal, so it’s really important to physically be present for someone in need.
Once you are physically present, the next step depends on the person. I believe that if you truly want to comfort someone the way they need to be comforted, you need to discover their love language. For anyone unfamiliar with love languages, there are five:
Words of Affirmation: verbal compliments and of appreciation are the most meaningful
Quality Time: giving someone your full undivided attention
Gifts: giving through gifts or gestures that show thoughtfulness and effort
Acts of Service: doing things for others by serving them or offering to help
Physical Touch: any form of physical contact, such as hugs, holding hands, etc.
Everyone has a primary love language, or two that are most important. It may be difficult to discover someone’s love language, especially when that person doesn’t know either. You can experiment with acting out the different love languages, or very simply ask the person to find out what their love language is. Once that is discovered, it’s important to learn as much about the primary love language. By giving someone love in the way they are the most receptive to receive it, you are showing that person how much you care, which is exactly what they need in those times that they need to be comforted.
When comforting someone, it’s important to consider what you would want someone to do for you, and also what you don’t want someone to do. Keep in mind, though, that the person you are comforting may or may not receive comfort the same way you do.
If you are still completely lost as what to say or do, remember this: “You can’t take the pain away, but your presence is more important than it seems. Accept that you can’t fix the situation or make your friend or relative feel better” (11 Ways to Comfort). Your job as a comforter is simply to be there and do whatever you can. You are not there to fix anything, and if you try, you may either fail or make things worse. During stages of grief (no matter how small or severe), there is a time for letting emotions out and comforting, then there is a time for trying to fix things and making everything better. During this comforting stage, just be there and listen.
Some people may just want to be cheered up right away, which is something you can try to do. But also allow that person to let their emotions out whenever he or she is ready. Understand that everyone processes their emotions differently and gradually. Don’t force someone to let out their emotions, but instead be an inviting and receptive person is open to listening and will provide no judgment.
Other few practical things you can do are to bring food, find a beloved pet, and make specific appointments to spend time together. Don’t just tell someone, “I’m here if you need me.” They may have trouble reaching out to you, so it’s your job to reach out to them. Also, don’t tell someone to be strong or positive, because that is exactly the most difficult thing for them to do at the moment, and it may make that person feel worse.
Val Walker says, “A lot of times we think we have to cheer them up and make them feel better, but [what people often need is] acceptance and acknowledgment.” If you can contribute to someone not feeling so isolated, if you can be that person who will truly listen, then you are doing your job as a comforter.