Learn how to comfort people

COLUMBIA—Many times we may want to help friends or relatives who are going through a crisis, but we don’t know what to do or say.

The key is to learn the art of comforting, which focuses on offering a respectful, empathetic presence to those in need.

Sister Christina Murphy, of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, led a March 29 workshop on “The Art of Comforting” at Our Lady of the Hills Church.

Her goal was to introduce the concept and teach effective ways to reach out to others who are struggling and need emotional support.

The two sessions focused on skills that anyone can learn, Sister Christina said.

There are important differences between how mainstream culture tells people how to respond to a crisis, and how a true comforter responds.

“The act of comforting tends to go against our common social approaches to helping because we tend to value focused, goal-oriented, fast and efficient methods for offering help,” she said. “With true comforting, communication can be slow, uneven, unpredictable and confusing. We need to be strong with the person feeling the pain.”

Current culture stresses cheering someone up or helping them get over a crisis quickly, while a true comforter understands that it often takes time for each person to work through a situation.

Many people never completely recover from a bereavement or tragedy, but simply learn effective ways to cope with loss.

Sister Christina offered some specific suggestions:

  • Put the human condition, and the individual’s situation and feelings, above everything else.
  • Be warm and welcoming.
  • Appreciate what is being said.
  • Tune out distractions.
  • Find out what makes the person comfortable.
  • Follow the lead of the whomever you are serving. Listen and find out what they need.
  • Help the person be hopeful.
  • Listen, be present, and smile when talking or spending time with someone.
  • Show your appreciation for what they share with you.
  • Keep what they share about their feelings and experiences confidential.
  • Show interest toward things they are interested in.
  • Let the person see you are not judging them, and want to stay connected with them.
  • Share some things that are meaningful to you, or that you are grateful for, or if you have ever had similar feelings to what they are experiencing.

Certain ways of talking to a person in crisis are helpful, and others aren’t, she said.

For instance, avoid saying that the difficult event was “part of God’s plan” or “God’s will.” Instead, sympathize and try phrases like “I hope things get easier for you soon” or “What has helped you get through these days?”

A comforter should also never claim to know how the person is feeling, because everyone experiences stress or grief in a different way.

Rather, ask about their experience and sympathize with phrases such as “I can only imagine how hard this is.”

A good rule of thumb is to think of caring for someone instead of curing them.

While conversation and communication is important, concrete actions are also part of comforting. Make regular phone calls or visits, send cards or e-mails, offer help with errands and let them you know are available to help with other things if possible. Invite them out for a cup of coffee, a meal or a walk.

“Through comforting, we move closer to what we are called to be — present to each other,” Sister Christina said. “You will discover skills in yourself perhaps you did not know were there. You may find that you too are experiencing comfort, and best of all, you will witness someone coming back into the light of life.”