How to comfort someone: The standard advice for comforting someone who is grieving is to tell the griever that you understand how they feel. This is good advice; it expresses sympathy, and sympathy is good. But it’s not the best thing to say if you really want to help.
It’s not that there’s anything wrong with empathy. The problem is that empathy doesn’t change anything. You feel bad for someone because you imagine what it would be like to be in their situation, and then you feel bad about feeling bad about it, and so on. Empathy just makes your badness about their badness recursively self-replicating. It won’t get them un-grieved.
The right thing to do, then, is to help them stop grieving, not just sympathize with their grief. What helps most with grieving is action: doing something practical to make things better. If you really want to help them start feeling better, the best thing is probably something like “I’m here for you; what can I do?” or “I’ll take care of this; how can I help?”
The reason action helps more than sympathy is that it changes the world in a way that makes grief less necessary. Your friend’s husband died? Here, call his brother;
Maybe you found out your partner is cheating on you. Or maybe you just found out they’ve been lying to you about something important. Or maybe someone really close to you has died. You’re upset, and you want to talk to someone.
The first thing to know is that most people are bad at comforting others. It’s not their fault; they don’t know what makes people feel better, because no one ever told them. People who are good at comforting others are rare; if they weren’t, they wouldn’t be good at it for long.
How to comfort someone over text
You’re in a situation where you need to say something comforting to someone. You can’t talk to them in person, but you can text. So what do you say?
This post is mostly an extended example of how not to do it. A lot of people do this sort of thing wrong by default, and I’ve learned the hard way, so I’m hoping this will be useful to other people who are trying to do it for the first time.
If you just met the person, then there’s no need to give advice. Just be comforting. Say you’re sorry and that you hope they’ll feel better soon.
When you write a condolence message, the only thing the receiver wants is to feel better. They don’t want you to tell them anything they already know, and they don’t want you to repeat your own grief.
You will find that many online condolences suggest that you avoid clichés and keep your language simple and straightforward. This is not because the writer of the condolence has to worry about seeming overly emotional; it’s because the writer knows what people need to hear in order to feel better.
I once met an author who was working on a book about how to write condolence messages for social media. I told her that I didn’t know if such a book was useful, since we can never know what other people are going through — we can only guess at what will help them — but her project made me think about what we should say when someone we care about loses someone else close to them.
How to comfort someone who lost a loved one
I learned a lot from my grandmother about how to comfort someone who is in pain. She was a nurse, and she had a lot of practice, but there were limits. There are times when no one can make it better.
I remember the day she told me her husband had died. My grandparents had been married for sixty years. I can’t imagine what that’s like, but I remember her face that day, and the feeling of being with her, and I know that she was suffering from a kind of heartbreak that can’t ever really heal. It gets better, if you’re lucky, but it never goes away completely.
I was very close to my grandmother, so when she told me she’d lost her husband, it made me feel scared and sad in a way I didn’t understand. I felt confused about how someone could be gone forever. But my grandmother sat down with me and explained it carefully, so I understood.
It is hard to comfort someone who has lost a loved one. You know that. But you also want to help. What can you do?
The first thing is not to say, “Time heals all wounds.” This is true as a statement of philosophy, but false as a practical guide to behavior. It may be true that “time heals all wounds,” but the person you are talking to is probably not going to believe it, and so your words will either be ignored or become an obstacle.
That’s because the time-heals-all-wounds statement doesn’t really tell us what to do or say now. In fact, if we think about it, the statement involves a logical contradiction: it says that time heals all wounds—except for all those wounds that time does not heal. And since the latter category is precisely what we are worried about right now, there isn’t much information there.
How to comfort someone who lost a pet
Comforting a friend who has lost a pet is a surprisingly difficult task.
It’s not that the words you want to say are hard to find. What usually happens is that you have too many of them. You can’t stop talking, and as far as your friend is concerned, every word is only making things worse.
What happened is that some innocent creature had settled into your friend’s life, and now it is gone. You want to say something about how the world abounds with wonders and beauty, and will make more creatures like the one that died. But you can’t talk about death without sounding trite, and you don’t even know if your friend believes in an afterlife. Or maybe your friend does believe in an afterlife, but doesn’t think that particular pet will be going there. Or maybe pets don’t have an afterlife at all. Or maybe pets do go to heaven, but not until they’ve been reincarnated as humans, which this pet isn’t going to be because it was run over by a car. And if your friend thinks animals go to heaven when they die, why does he think this? Is he sure it wasn’t just delirious last words from a dying animal? And how would you feel if you believed animals
The first rule of comforting someone who has lost a pet is: Don’t. The second rule of comforting someone who has lost a pet is: Don’t.
The third rule, though, is that sometimes it might be necessary to say something. In that case, here are some suggestions for what to say.
How to comfort someone with anxiety
We can be anxious for ourselves, but we can also be anxious on behalf of others. And sometimes they are most comforted by what we can offer them, not by what we say.
I once had a friend with an eating disorder. Years later she told me that my presence was the greatest comfort to her during her illness, because I never asked about it. She knew I would listen if she wanted to tell me, but my not asking made it clear that it was not necessary for her to divulge anything she didn’t want to share. And so anxiety about the thing that was making her sick fell away.
What else could I have done? If I had insisted on knowing, that would have been intrusive and hurtful. If I had offered platitudes about how she would “grow out of it,” that would have been dishonest and condescending, because she thought she might never grow out of it.
If you’re the person who is anxious, here’s what I want to tell you: You are not alone.
Some people find this hard to believe. Anxiety disorders are common, affecting about 15% of us at some point in our lives. But many of those people go undiagnosed; there’s a widespread stigma against mental illness, and it keeps us from getting help. Mental illness also tends to strike earlier in life than other kinds of illness do — so young people have a lot of “normal” anxiety too, and they don’t always realize that feeling anxious much of the time is not normal for them.