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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"

"Call me anytime."

"It's always darkest before the dawn."

"Look on the bright side."

Quite possibly, the only thing worse than hearing those platitudes is saying them. We want to offer our loved ones soothing words and support. But instead we often struggle to find the right words, say something irritating, or get so uncomfortable about broaching sad conversations that we avoid people when they need us most.

Val Walker, a bereavement counselor, learned firsthand that comforting someone doesn't mean having The Hard Talk. Heartbroken after a divorce, she was putting on a brave face for a visiting friend. Her fake-it-to-make-it cheeriness collapsed on the fourth day, when she broke down in tears after burning an omelet. "Now you see what a basket case I really am," Walker told her friend. To her surprise, the friend made herself comfortable on the floor and gently invited Walker to talk about what was happening with her. The floodgates opened, and they talked, laughed, ranted and cried together for two straight days. Walker says the experience opened her eyes to the importance of simply being present for people experiencing grief.

She sought out "master comforters" to discover their secrets, and then created a step-by-step guide. She offers helpful options — not platitudes — and ideas for comforting that don't involve uttering a single word. Whether it's setting up regular poker nights or movie outings, or inviting a friend for a walk in your favorite park, Walker tells the AARP Bulletin that comforting is simply the art of offering your time, your ears and your heart to the people you love most.

(Read an excerpt from The Art of Comforting: What to Say and Do for People in Distress)

Q. Sometimes a book comes along and you think, "Why hasn't someone written about this before?" Yours is definitely one of them.

A. That's so heartening. In the bereavement support groups I lead, people always talk about how they've been comforted. I wanted to capture that practical wisdom. I thought, aren't there ways we can take these skills into everyday life? And many of the things people can do work for many kinds of loss, not just bereavement.

Q. It's surprising to think you can actually teach yourself to be the ultimate comforter.

A. I found people who were deeply comforting, and studied their key attributes. I soon realized that each of us already has comforting attributes within us. We just need a little practice.

Q. What makes somebody comforting?

A. The top three things people can do are: Be fully present, listen well and have empathy. Comforting people are able to be fully present — they can just sit and listen to someone without being distracted. And they use their empathy to acknowledge the person's experience and make them feel validated for what they are going through.

Q. Which of those do you yourself find the most challenging?

A. My greater quality is empathy, so I'm always working on being a really good listener and being present.

Q. Empathy seems to be something many people struggle with. They fear they don't know how to talk about it, unless they've gone through the same situation.

A. We all have sorrow and loss in our lives. So we can feel someone's loss with them if we just listen with our hearts. It's okay to say, "I really can only imagine what you are going through. I haven't been through this myself, but I'm here to listen. I can feel your sorrow with you."

Q. It's the exact opposite of giving someone an encouraging pat and saying, "Just buck up."

A. Yes, we use those platitudes because we don't know how to just sit with someone when we don't know what to say.

Q. What are some of the more helpful things to say instead?

A. Anytime you tell someone to be something or do something, you're taking away the value of her experience. So one of the good things to say is "I believe in you," rather than "Get over it," or pushing them to look on the bright side. Instead of "Keep the faith," say, "I have faith in you." Acknowledge how sad you are that they're going through this experience.

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