Opportunities to Comfort Are All Around Us
Life is not easy. We all experience pain, disappointment, and loss. One of the great joys of friendship, and the great satisfactions of life, is to be able to comfort a friend or family member in their time of need.
And of course, when we ourselves are hurting, we long to hear soothing words from our friends.
These words, if chosen well, have tremendous power to ease our pain.
With the rise of social media, it seems we have more opportunities than ever to offer words of comfort and support.
Scroll through the feed on any of your social media apps, and it won’t be long until you encounter a friend who has experienced a loss: the death of friend, family member, or pet, the loss of a job, a newly diagnosed illness, a financial setback, a breakup, a disappointment at work.
Most Attempts at Comforting Are Ineffective
Because of the nature of my work (I teach communication, and I train health professionals how to comfort patients and families in distress) I consider myself a connoisseur of comforting messages.
The good ones will take your breath away with their beauty, creativity, and effectiveness. The bad ones will stun you with their insensitivity.
What strikes me about most comforting messages I read on social media is generally how bad and how formulaic they are. Glancing at Facebook recently as someone revealed the death of a family member, I saw an outpouring of responses, but almost all were some variation on “I’m sorry for your loss.”
I’m not saying that a person won’t be grateful or be comforted by even a simple expression of sympathy like “I’m sorry for your loss.”
But it is possible, and not difficult, to do much better, and in doing so to make a lasting impact on the people we love and to deepen the bonds of friendship.
The Goal of Comforting
As with any communication task, it’s useful to start by thinking about the goal. Once we understand the goal, we can design a message to achieve that goal.
In a comforting situation, the primary goal is to comfort, to ease another person’s suffering, to lighten their load.
But there are many other related goals.
We might want to let the other person know we care, or to let them know that they are loved. We might want to help our friend make sense of the situation, or to understand their own emotions.
It’s tempting to think that people who need comfort already know what they are feeling, and that our main job is just to help them deal with that feeling. But often when we are distraught, we actually don’t know precisely what we are feeling.
We may be overwhelmed by the bodily sensations. We may be confused by conflicting feelings. Or we may the sort of person who is not very good at understanding or even accessing our feelings.
In these cases, an additional goal is to help people understand their own feelings, to name them, to suggest where they might be coming from.
Another goal in a comforting situation is to bear witness to another person’s pain. We just want them to know that we see them, that their suffering is real, and that it’s valid or even righteous.
It is also helpful to tell people how we feel about them and that we will not abandon them.
A Template for Comforting
So what I am going to describe is a general approach that has worked well for me and that is supported by research on comforting communication.
To make it concrete, let’s imagine a situation when you have just learned that a friend’s parent has died. To contrast with the typical “sorry for your loss” or “sending thoughts and prayers” message, I will give examples of what one might say instead.
Begin by expressing sorrow, shock, regret, and sadness at what has happened.
I was shocked and saddened to hear of your mom’s passing.
Depending on the circumstances, you might say that you are “deeply shocked” or “profoundly saddened.”
Then comes the hard part.
In order to write a truly effective comforting message, you must enter into the other person’s experience. Try to imagine how they are feeling. What are they thinking? What choices do they face? What might they be feeling physically? What would it be like to see the world through their eyes? What are their greatest fears? MIght they be having some positive emotions as well as negative emotions?
It’s not hard to understand why most of us would rather dash of a quick “sorry for your loss, thoughts and prayers” message. Because to really comfort someone requires coming face-to-face with extremely uncomfortable emotions.
We may have to reflect on our own grief, our own losses and disappointments, to remember how it felt and what we were thinking. Many of us would rather not revisit those painful moments.
But there is no easier way.
The effectiveness of the message is directly proportional to how deeply, honestly, and vulnerably you have gazed into the other person’s pain and reflected it back to them. This makes the other person feel seen and heard and reminds them they are not alone.
Once you have done this, then you must give expression what you’ve seen or remembered.
The pain must be unbearable. It seems impossible to imagine the world without our parents. The grief and pain are overwhelming. And so are the fear and loneliness. You just want to talk to her one more time. It’s just absolutely awful in every way.
Notice what this message does not do. It does not try to make the person feel better. It does not attempt any distraction. It does not avoid the elephant in the room. It dives right in and talks about the misery and pain.
We often think that we might be helping those we love by not talking about the pain and sorrow. But experience suggests that talking directly about what people are feeling is comforting. It let’s us know our feelings are real and visible. It validates our suffering.
So I do the opposite. Instead of avoiding the bad stuff, I normally try to focus on the intolerability of the pain and the seeming impossibility of finding relief.
- This is an inconsolable loss. May you somehow be comforted in your grief.
Reaffirm your love or affection for the person who has died and for the person who survives. Acknowledge the powerlessness of words in such a situation.
- Your mother was such a wonderful and loving person. I realize nothing I can say can ease the pain of this terrible loss.
I generally advise against talking about yourself. To comfort someone is an act of generosity and selflessness. It’s not about you. The only exception to this rule is to express your affection for the other person, or, if you are close enough to the situation to be affected yourself, then you can express your own sorrow, to show solidarity, not to draw attention to yourself.
- Please know how much we love you and grieve with you. Our hearts are broken.
Putting it All Together
To summarize, the template for comforting includes these steps:
- Express sorrow, shock, and regret.
- Imagine what the other person is feeling or experiencing, and name those feelings.
- Describe the severity of the pain or loss. Do not minimize it.
- Acknowledge the inability of words to truly ease the pain.
- Reaffirm your love and affection for the person you are comforting.
Putting it all together an effective message might look like this:
- I was shocked and saddened to hear of your mom’s passing. The pain must be unbearable. It seems impossible to imagine the world without her. The grief and pain are overwhelming. And so are the fear and loneliness. You just want to talk to her one more time. It’s just absolutely awful in every way. Your mother was such a wonderful and loving person. This is an inconsolable loss. May you somehow be comforted in your grief. I realize nothing I can say can ease the pain of this terrible loss. Please know how much we love you and grieve with you. Our hearts are broken.
If you follow these steps with sincerity and authenticity, you will be amazed at the power of words to comfort your friends and family in their darkest moments.
Your kind and thoughtful words will stand out against a background of “sorry for your loss” messages.
And you will experience the deep satisfaction of knowing that by tapping into your own vulnerability about pain and loss, you have given someone you care about a sense of solace and belonging when they needed it most.
Bruce L. Lambert, PhD is a professor, scientist, and consultant who solves problems involving health, communication, and technology. You can subscribe to his blog at HowCommunicationWorks.com or follow him on Twitter @bruce_lambert.
Stay updated on new articles and resources in psychology and self improvement: