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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.

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.