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How to Comfort Someone in Crisis

Text by Val Walker

What's the best thing you can do for a person in pain? You can listen. 

The word "comfort" originates from the Latin "con fortis," meaning "to be strong with." Being strong with someone means creating a sanctuary for them, just listening and allowing the person to acknowledge their pain. 

I believe many of us feel uncomfortable in the role of comforters because the act of comforting tends to go against our common approaches to helping each other. 

We Americans especially value goal-oriented solutions. We think helping someone in pain means helping them "get over" the problem. 

We're less comfortable in a receptive, listening role, which is what people in distress need.

Over my 16 years as a facilitator of support groups for bereaved, traumatized, or gravely ill people, many have shared some of the statements others have made in their attempts to offer comfort, as well as their "backfiring" effects. 

Here is a list of these common platitudes, and suggestions for more helpful things to say.

LESS HELPFULMORE HELPFUL
"Be strong and you'll get through it.""I can only imagine how you've coped."
"It happened for the best.""I'm so sorry this has happened."
"You are lucky that your father died peacefully.""I was so sad to hear the news about your father."
"Your fears have probably made your chakras imbalanced.""How is your body dealing with the strain?"
"You have your whole life ahead of you.""Allow some time for this."
"I know what that's like.""Do you mind telling me what it's like?"
"This is a part of life, part of living.""No one should have to go through that."
"You can always adopt a child.""You've tried so hard. I'm so sorry."
"When you feel ready, just give me a call.""I'll call you Monday night to touch base."
"You should go to a support group.""Have you ever thought about a support group?"

Val Walker teaches comforting in schools and hospitals. This excerpt is adapted from her book "The Art of Comforting: What to Say and Do for People in Distress" (Copyright Jeremy P. Tarcher, a member of the Penguin Group).

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