As sensations go, pain is rarely welcomed. Cold? Sure, sometimes. Fatigue? That’s manageable. But pain, particularly the emotional kind, is tough. No one wants to be in it. More than that, it’s hard to watch someone you care about go through a tough time and not do anything. We want to comfort.
“It’s just an instinct to want to help people feel better,” says Debra DeMartino, psychotherapist in Hicksville, New York.
Providing comfort to your partner or friend isn’t complex, but it is easy to mangle, despite the best of intentions. First, a list of what it isn’t. Comfort is not merely listening. You might have to, but sometimes that’s the last thing the person wants.
Grief also doesn’t immediately vanish, which means it’s not your job to fix or problem-solve, although that’s probably what you really, really want to do. The goal is to be present, which is hard in the face of discomfort. There could be crying, ticking off the deep-down worry that you’ll start and never stop, says Pat Love, relationship expert and author of Five Forces Destroying Your Relationship You Probably Never Heard Of.
And there’s fear. Most people have three-to-five people who they go to for support. This is your attachment circle, Love calls it, and when one of them is at risk, “Your safety net is threatened.”
The through-line is that discomfort is not one thing. Each person’s needs are unique and can change by the hour, but providing comfort should result in a lightening, mostly in isolation, because pain can disconnect people from themselves, their surroundings, and others. “We feel our worst when we feel alone,” DeMartino says. “Connection is what we always seek.”
Achieving connection comes in many forms. But how do you do that? Here’s what to know about how to comfort someone the right way.
1. Start Gently
Here’s a basic rule: You can’t push someone to talk about feelings, especially when pain is involved. The more effective approach is to make a gentle observation and an acknowledgement of what you’re hearing, says Michael Nichols, professor of psychology at the College of William & Mary and author of The Lost Art of Listening. Responses like, “That’s rough. What’s that like?” or “Seems like you’re having a hard time …” are good. Your voice offers an invitation to share more by ending whatever you say in a question mark or ellipsis.
A common mistake is when people end up playing detective. It becomes, “Oh, I see you feel bad,” a statement that’s about your wisdom and ends in a period. Comfort is not about knowing or figuring out anything, but understanding and accepting. “You don’t need to be smart or perceptive,” he says. “You need to be receptive.”
2. Don’t Freeze
Discomfort can be unnerving and can cause you to talk just to fill the silence. It often comes out as reassurances, stuff like, “We’ll get through this.” And “It’ll be all right,” Nichols says. It might be true, but such sentiment is neither helpful nor personal.
Discomfort can also make you completely pull back and disappear from the scene because, somehow, you think that’s best. “Unless someone tells you, ‘I want you to do nothing,’ doing nothing is usually the wrong move,” Love says. Remember: You two are not strangers. There’s a tone and interplay to your relationship. If you usually give each other a hard time or “brag” about your home project skills, lean on that.
3. Show Up
As a spouse, family member, or friend, you drop things to be available. “Don’t let it pass,” Love says. “Not much else matters at that point.”
But the question remains of what to do. You let the other person take the lead and read the situation. It’s good to ask, “How can I be helpful?,” if you’re unsure, DeMartino says. You might need to listen, but the answer might be to tell jokes, review opening day rosters, or talk about anything but the issue, because distance is required to get perspective. “We all need time away from ourselves,” Love says.
If you’re stuck or talking isn’t called for, then think of the practical things that the other person likes seeing done or goes nuts over when they aren’t done. It could mean taking out the trash, folding clothes, keeping the sink empty. Ultimately, it’s about you being around and easing the load. “Presence is key,” Love says.
4. Know the Calendar
Pain and grief linger. This is another chance to use your insider knowledge about what matters to the person and how things might be different. It’s always good to think about oncoming firsts: birthdays, holidays, summer vacations — anything that might highlight a void or trigger old feelings. If there’s a way to take over a tradition, do it, but just checking in resonates. “People appreciate when you remember past the 30-day mourning period,” Love says.
5. Share, But Just Enough
A common fear, one that stops people from acting, is that you’ll say something that reminds someone of their situation. But the grief already exists and the person is well aware of it. A simple, “I see how much pain you’re in. I’m sorry” can be enough. But sometimes it feels like you want to share your experience because it might help. It’s a delicate balance, DeMartino says, between relating and taking over.
If it’s authentic, you can say, “I’ve felt that way and I know how much it hurts … Could I tell you about it?” They can say “yes”. They might say “no”, but the act of asking, and letting the person decide, offers yet another form of comfort. “When someone is going through something painful, it feels like they have no control,” DeMartino says. “Having a sense of control over anything is going to be helpful.”