The Art of Comfort

Responding to another person’s grief can be incredibly difficult, not because we don’t care, but because we simply don’t know what to do. Often, that’s because there isn’t much that we actually can do. We can’t change the death of a loved one or alter a devastating medical diagnosis. Given pervading cultural norms, witnessing someone else’s grief can feel awkward and intrusive.

Without clear direction, it’s easy to fall into a ‘flight or fix’ mode, either avoiding the grieving individual altogether or offering advice or rationalizations that portray the situation as less horrible than it really is.

We can’t fix the situation, but we can be a presence that conveys care and comfort to those dealing with grief.

Here are some things I have learned from grieving clients about the art of comforting.

  • To focus effectively on someone else, we have to transcend the feelings of discomfort their grief may provoke in us. That’s easier said than done and it’s okay to say as much. A statement like, “It is so hard to see you upset and not be able to do something to make things better” conveys an acknowledgment of another’s pain regret for their suffering.
  • Remember that offering comfort is about focusing on the needs of the person grieving. If you’re not sure what those needs are, simply ask.
  • Resist the urge to offer solutions, advice, trite philosophical perspectives, or assert that you know how they feel. In spite of the best intentions, these are just not helpful.

Finally, and probably most importantly, remember that offering comfort is about presence, not solutions. Grief is a painful journey on a treacherous path. We can’t necessarily thwart the journey or alter the path, but we can make sure the journey isn’t taken alone.

Written By: Jill Howgate, LAPC