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How to offer comfort

Reaching out to someone can be one of the hardest things to do. Here are some tips from the author of "The Art of Comforting."

By Cheryl Stritzel McCarthy, Special to Tribune Newspapers

March 1, 2011

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For Val Walker, practical wisdom was born in a moment of fire and fury. During a bleak time post-divorce, she snapped when she accidentally burned herself, dropped a frying pan of grease and flung the spatula against the wall.

Amid the mess, her friend sat on the kitchen floor with her and offered to listen. That simple act spurred Walker, now a grief and bereavement educator based in Maine, to write "The Art of Comforting: What to Say and Do for People in Distress" (Tarcher/Penguin, $15.95).

Her book offers specific language and tips about what to say and do for people experiencing loss, including unemployment, death or illness.

Q: We hesitate to reach out to others in distress. How can we overcome that?

A: We don't like to reach out if we don't know what to say. But we can learn. We think we're supposed to fix the problem, or make them feel better. When we try to fix it, we miss opportunities to comfort. We need to listen. It's more about being there than having to do anything. Follow the person's lead. They will give you cues, and words, about what's comforting. They might light up when they talk about their dog. So build on that. Say "Tell me about little Missy," not "Hey! You should go to a support group!"

Q: I'm not the huggy type. Can't I leave comforting to someone else?

A: You don't have to be touchy-feely to be a good comforter. That is a myth! It's comforting to run an errand or make a good meal. You can be thoughtful. A huge thing is to be reliable, to say, "I'll pick you up from the hospital." It's comforting to have people who mean what they say. In my work of facilitating support groups over 17 years, I was surprised to find reliability was one of the most important qualities in comforting.

Q: Any tips for e-mailing or writing a letter of condolence?

A: Let the person know you've been thinking of him. Then let him know how you feel: "I feel so sad about your loss." Ask how he's doing. If you notice anything positive about how he's coping, mention it. (In bereavement situations) offer to share a memory about the deceased. Express your desire to stay in touch, and follow up with a concrete offer, such as a phone call, visit, invitation or e-mail. Keep in contact over the months. A common lament from grieving people is the silence that follows the first few weeks.

Q: How can I comfort someone who has lost a job?

A: When you show up, acknowledge you're sad or sorry about the loss. You don't have to dance around it. Offer to spend time with them. They may want to brainstorm with you or have you listen while they vent.

Q: Any specifics about comforting children?

A: Hands-on activities help to ground kids. Kids like feeling productive. They can make something, a card or a banner, or decorations. Play music they like, play a game together, brush a pet. A child may not want to get into conversation, but you create an opportunity for him to express grief. They'll derive comfort from your presence. You're not pushing them to say anything.

You want to regularly check in with a grieving child. Let him speak if he wants, but it's OK if he doesn't. Emphasize one-on-one time. Kids are very conscious of siblings or peers. Privacy is key when they're vocalizing things that are hard, especially if they start crying. … Comforting is 80 percent nonverbal. Kids especially need nonverbal reassurance.

sunday@tribune.com