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The Author Speaks

Learning to Soothe a Soul

Interview with Val Walker, author of "The Art of Comforting: What to Say and Do for People in Distress"

Q. And you don't even necessarily need to comfort through your words.

A. That's right, we always think we have to have The Big Conversation. Even with children, we say, "Come on, little Billy, you need to get your feelings out and talk about your granddad." We think being a good friend means you have to help them face it and deal with it.

Q. But sometimes grief is too big for words.

A. Exactly. Like, I'm a freak over "So You Think You Can Dance." And a friend just lost her mom this summer. One night I called her and just wanted to know if she'd been watching the show. It turned out her mother loved the program, too. It was more comfortable for her to talk about "So You Think You Can Dance" than if I'd called to talk about her loss.

Q. Can you offer some ideas for writing comforting letters? Those can be tricky.

A. Open the letter by letting the person know you've been thinking about them and acknowledge what's happened to them — "I've been wondering how things are going for you this week after your doctor's appointment." So you're giving them a chance to respond to something specific, but not pushing them. Ask an open-ended question, like, "Do you feel like telling me how it's going?" Then offer to follow up, mentioning something specific — "Would you like to go for a walk this Friday?" or "A good time to give me a call is Sunday morning."

Q. That sure sounds better than saying, "Please call anytime."

A. We've all been hurt by that phrase. If you're going through a hard time, you worry, "Am I going to burden my friends?" It also makes a person feel needy.

Q. You write about comforting yourself by spending time in nature. How can you facilitate someone else's relationship with nature to help them through a rough time?

A. Just invite them for a walk, or to a picnic under a great tree on a nice day. And let's say a goldfinch or squirrel hops down — you're pulled out of your own human drama du jour and into the moment. When we step out of the four walls around us, it does something to us as humans. You're stepping beyond the human world and into a space much bigger than us — what writer David Abram calls the more-than-human world — the Earth.

Q. We've been talking about specific, intentional actions we can take. But how can people build little bubbles of comfort wherever they go?

A. One of the people I profile, Jeff, is really big on appreciating people. He works with veterans, and he calls it a privilege to be in their lives. He demonstrates that with photos on his wall of his favorite veterans. One of my comforters, Jen, has a retreat center. Before guests arrive, she has a little ceremony. She lights candles and picks flowers for the guests' rooms, and it puts her in this warm, welcoming mood. It brings out her own comforting qualities, which her guests respond to. So think about yourself — the colors you love, the photos, the fragrances you love, the foods you love to make. If you celebrate the comforting qualities of yourself in your home environment, it's contagious.

Q. Many older Americans seem like they are more innately comforting than younger Americans.

A. They appreciate the face-to-face contact much more. Technology can't substitute for time together — like just drinking coffee and sharing stories. We need to restore some of these simple pleasures, especially with our economy this bad. And many people like me, who are over 50, can reassure us that these times count just as much. In the movie Up, a little boy is grieving his loved one. He says it's the boring stuff that he remembers most. Our elders valued that simple time together more. They can model just how wonderful it is just to share a nice piece of pie, or watch a silly rerun of Carol Burnett.

Q. How can older Americans help the younger generation learn to be better comforters?

A. Let me say to all of us over age 50: It's really important that we teach the art of comforting. We need to share the routines we loved as children, our favorite stories. Go ahead and put a cozy blanket around you and a child, and say, "Do you want to hear a story my granddaddy told me when I was 8?"

Q. You have an example.

A. The storyteller in my book, Les Schaffer, told how his grandfather used to put socks on his feet at night when it was really cold. He'd put his socks on and rub his little feet, and tell his grandchildren stories. Now Les tells "sock stories," and puts on his own socks before getting into his grandchildren's bed, to re-create the whole ritual. I remember getting out these special avocado-colored Italian plates for dinners at my grandmother's house — as I put them on the table, she'd share stories about when she was a kid in Italy. Rituals become magic. Kids love feeling like they're part of a generational rite. And sharing rituals reminds us that we are all comforters in our own ways.

Christie Findlay lives in Virginia.

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