Providing comfort to others

Q. How do I comfort my friend who is hurting when I feel so inadequate? I want to say the right thing to make her feel better. I end up trying to figure out ways to make myself invisible or avoid her completely because I can’t do it. Help me be a better friend, please. – Jane

A. I think everyone can relate to feeling inadequate in the presence of someone in pain. It is one of the most helpless times in our life. As much as we want to fix the situation, we cannot do it.

The good news is we do not have to fix it. Somewhere along the line, we have forgotten how to “BE” with people. I don’t know if it is technology or social media or what it is, but we have forgotten or maybe never even learned, how to be present with others in times of loss, sadness or difficult times. It is easier to make a quick comment on Facebook that says, “You are in my prayers.”

The problem with consoling from a distance is that the person is still alone in their sadness. Although a message, text or even a card can help, it is not the same as hearing someone’s voice or a feeling a touch of their hand. Nothing makes suffering worse than thinking you have to go through it by yourself. Our own discomfort is often what gets in the way of easing someone else’s heart ache.

So how do we fix this? First, it’s knowing that our job is not to fix them or their situation. Our job is to “BE.” We acknowledge to ourselves that it will feel awkward and uncomfortable. We take a deep breath, count to five, exhale, and then keep on breathing. We call our friend, listen and ask them what they need. Most often they will say “nothing,” because what they needed we have already done – listen.

We go to them and we sit with them. There is no magic or perfect set of words to say. We sit quietly with our friend. We hug them, hold their hand and through our presence, their sadness lessens because they are no longer alone.

We continue to call them, check on them, support them, encourage them and love them. It may continue to feel uncomfortable for you to reach out to, and that is okay. It feels awkward for many of us. Acknowledge your feelings, and then step around them and do what you need to do.

Don’t focus your energy on the “right” thing to say. If you stumble on how to begin, start with “Tell me what’s going on,” “What do you need?” or “I heard what is going on, how can I help?” Listen without judgment and tell her you are sorry she is going through this situation and that you care about her. Try not to give advice unless asked, as this is rarely helpful for someone who is going through a difficult time.

Friendships are relationships that are critical to our lives. They require attention, love and for us to give of ourselves, despite our own “stuff.” So, when in doubt, just “Be.”

This response was written by Julie Elbert, LISW, clinical director at Catholic Charities. Please send any questions, big or small, to info@cathchar.com.

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