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January 20, 2014 at 9:27 PMComments: 0 Faves: 0

Being There: The Seven Keys to Comforting a Friend

By Jeffrey VanWingen M.D. More Blogs by This Author

I entered the room to see a patient of mine this week and she burst out with some exciting news. "I'm pregnant!" I shared in her excitement, especially knowing that for her the road to this point has been longer than most. This patient  and her husband had been in to see me after struggling to become pregnant, but with some help from an infertility specialist and a lot of patience, she was finally where she wanted to be.

We talked about the trials she had been through, but mostly about the people in her life and how they either didn't know what to say or sometimes said the wrong things. It got me thinking about how poorly equipped many of us feel when we're trying to communicate our support. The thing is, most of us only seldom need to draw upon this skill. Not so for a doctor.

Today, I'd like to share what I've learned in my years as a doctor - some simple advice on how to take the concern and feelings of compassion that you do have and refine them into sentiments that are helpful for struggling friends and family.

Mean it.

It seems that so much of our social interactions have been reduced to cliché small talk. People in despair or need see right through this. Asking "How are you?" without really caring does more damage than good. You don't need to have answers and you certainly don't need to have a full understanding of the situation. All you need is to be prepared to listen and care.

Resist the urge to give advice.

To say it again, you don't need to have all the answers to support someone. Yet, so many people feel compelled to give  them. Contrary to how it may seem, people in the midst of struggles do not want or need answers. For most, the answers are obvious, but not readily obtainable. Be cautious with advice on how to cope, especially without the experience of having endured the same or a similar trial. Be quick to listen and slow to speak.

You're not a fortune teller.

Nobody knows what the future holds. Use caution in assuring someone that the future will be "just fine." This can come off feeling like a dismissal of their struggle and may set them up for disappointment. Assurances of support and affirmations of a person's strength and courage go further with more substance.

Be present (no avoiding).

In talking with people about trials they have faced, one unsavory aspect about the experience (besides the trial itself) has been the avoidance of people. Sometimes words and interactions are difficult with people struggling or in crisis. In truth, the struggles of others can be an unpleasant reminder of our own struggles and fears and a natural mechanism is to avoid the situation.  It's not that we put the person out of our mind, but we avoid that difficult social interaction. Fight this feeling for the sake of the person in need. Avoiding those interactions can be emotionally harmful and be misinterpreted as a cold lack of caring. Remember, you don't have to have all the answers. You just need to be there.

Get them laughing.

In my opinion, humor is like an amplifier. It has been well-documented that use of humor and laughter can help people fight disease and enhance the mood in trying times. I have had countless patients in the midst of battles with disease or hardship tell me how good and refreshing it was to laugh with a good friend. This sword has another edge, however, and can lead to misinterpretation and hurt feelings. As an amplifier, humor has the power to intensify the help or cause greater harm. Do not avoid it for these reasons,  but use it wisely with a more scrutinizing filter. Laugh about funny things that are unrelated to their struggle. Let the person with the struggle take the lead in poking fun at aspects of their situation.

Take action.

It's been said that worry accomplishes nothing. I have always seen this as a rather empty insight. It has never made me worry less. Worry is an energy with no place to go that circulates in our mind and body, around and around. As such, actions can help release them. If you have concern or worry about someone, do something for them to their benefit. Turn that energy into something tangible that is satisfying for both parties. One great example is cooking a meal for someone in need. I have consistently heard patients in struggle express a deep appreciation for these expressions of love and support.

It's natural to feel a little awkward.

In his book, The Death of Ivan Illych, Leo Tolstoy paints what has been hailed as the perfect portrait into the mind of someone facing his own death. In the opening chapters, Ivan Illych compares the reaction of his circle of friends upon seeing him to someone farting in a drawing room full of people. He saw into those common (and natural) feelings of awkwardness and discomfort. It's okay to feel this way. Just don't let it stop you. For the sake of those you love in the midst of a crisis or struggle, conquer your own insecurities to be a positive force of encouragement and support. 

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