Friday, August 07, 2009

How To Comfort a Friend

I was flipping through the "Take Our Advice" edition of the Reader's Digest recently, and noticed a 1/2 page blurb entitled "How To Comfort a Friend." It states that if you ask someone in a crisis how they're doing, and they say "I'm Great!," it means they don't want to talk.

I couldn't disagree with that advice more.

I talked at length with my niece today, about how awkward it is, sometimes, to talk about the heartache in our life right now. For me, a "how are you?" brings me up short for a second. My brain does this weird data-scan, analyzing the tone of the question, calculating the degree of the possibility that the person I'm speaking to knows what's going on in our lives, and how much they really want to know how I am.

I have to decide, and answer accordingly.

I've answered honestly before and realized that I just dropped a bomb on some unsuspecting soul. Other times I worry about the ambush effect, respond with a polite "just fine, thank you," and end up wondering if I haven't given someone an inadvertent cold shoulder.

So, Reader's Digest, "I'm Great," doesn't always mean "shut up, you."

And yet, other times, it does.

My sister and niece both have expressed exhaustion at answering the same questions over and over again. On bad days, it can be deconstructive to rewind, replay, remember, or dwell on not keeping the mashed potatoes down or getting a port cleaned out. Yes, sometimes "I'm doing great" does mean "shut up, you."

As much as we struggle with our responses, we know that you also dance around what to say or do. It's interesting to me to note variable strengths and courage in people. Many are bold and step right up, with offers, cards, food, phone calls. Others run for fear of being awkward; or say "I just don't know what to say." Others, still can take us completely aback. I was once left speechless after opening up to someone who responded cheerily, "wow. Sucks to be you."

I'm sure that comment was wrought from sheer nerves, an attempt to make a joke. We are all, quite simply, comfortable and uncomfortable with different things. One of the most comforting notes I got from a friend after telling everyone that Teri's care would be turned over to hospice read "Well, fuck." Not everyone would have found that comforting. Other people are less blunt, more concerned with propriety and pleasantness, and smoothing over certain subjects and certain words.

Maybe we all just don't know what to say or do sometimes, but I think the most important thing, in the long run, is that everyone is making an attempt. We express our concerns, and we accept well wishes.

If we have to dance around one another now and again, that's ok. I can promise you this: Whether you are bold or terrified or competent or awkward, we are infinitely comforted that you are just brave enough to show up for the dance.

Gnightgirl's Advice on How To Comfort a Friend:

Show up for the dance.



  1. In my family, we talk about "coming into the parlor."

    After my dad died, lots (and lots and tons of tons) of people said "if you need us, just call." Only you're right ~ you don't want to keep burdening and keep dumping and, after a while, don't want to call but would give just about anything for someone to take the initiative. One Sunday, my mom was at church and it was too much. She got up and left the sanctuary. We always sat up front so the entire congregation of friends saw her go. One man ~ one ~ followed her out. Mama ended up in the parlor, nearly doubled over on the sofa. He stood, just in the door, giving her privacy if she wanted it but making himself known should she want anything but privacy. When she looked up and saw him, it took everything she had just to lift her hand to him ~ and it was enough. He was sitting next to her on the sofa immediately, holding her and letting her cry. I don't remember the story being that he ever said a word. Sometimes, what matters, is just coming into the parlor.

    Shoo me out when you're ready. Otherwise, I'm camping out on the sofa.

  2. Lori, I don't know if this will comfort you or not, so I'm just going to say it because it came to my mind as I was reading.

    So here goes.

    I'm not close to either of my sisters. Actually, the better--more honest--way to put it is that I'm estranged from them. An even more honest way to put it is that I'm estranged from them and don't ever plan to do anything to change that. This doesn't make me happy, but changing things would make me even more unhappy.

    You and your sister are close. You're both so lucky for that. I read in another blog post that you have "poignant" conversations, and I was surprised at how happy I was for you that you have that with your sister.

    I'm not close with my mother. We get along well, have a good relationship, nice talks and visits. But I wasn't close to her when I was growing up, and we're not as close now as we were when I was in my 20s. We simply don't have a lot in common, and I (too often) keep my distance from her because of this.

    When you write about your mom, it reminds me that I do love my own mom, and it moves me to show it.

    I'm not writing this to say, "count your blessings." Not at all. Not even close.

    I'm writing this to tell you that it makes me happy to read that you have a close relationship with your sister (you of *all* the people I know in this world deserve love). And I'm writing to tell you that sometimes a random post of yours reminds me that it's been awhile since I've emailed or called my mom.

    Love you.

  3. Your honesty is always refreshing, Lori.

  4. Good advice Lori. Show up for the dance. Could not have said it better myself.

  5. I know I got sick and tired of answering the some questions from everyone when my brother was struggling with pancreatic cancer.

    Then there was the guy who told my brother,"Sorry to learn of your impending death." I'm sure it was a nervous comment about a bad situation, but nothing said would have been better than that.

    Our experience was that daily, normally mundane conversations were what kept us out of the dumps. Talking about kids' activities, work issues, sports talk, and all the other little things of life, took focus away from the big dark thing looming in the background.

    My advice to friends: Keep things normal.

  6. Anonymous7:48 PM

    Words very nicely put.

    I know I do an awkward dance many a times but make an effort to show up anyways.

    I still feel guilty of that one incident where a family friend lost her young high school going daughter to cancer..and I did not have the courage to go see her. I just couldn't bear to go see her in that state..

  7. AlwaysHappy

    An interesting point...I meant also to say that we understand also, those than find the dance too painful. We've all been there also; it's not only understandable, but human, I think.

  8. I can't agree more Lori. Most of the time the time the "how are you?" question is rhetorical and people really don't want to know how you are. The other thing I've found is that a lot of people don't know how to *offer* help so they remain distant. In my case with these people I've had to say this I what I need and when, and they step up to the plate. So many people are willing to help if you just make it clear exactly what it is you need - a shoulder to cry on, a meal, a sleepover, anything. But it also takes courage to ask for help.

  9. Lori...look...I'm not lurking!!! ;)

    this post really touched me. "show up for the dance" there a better way to put it? I don't think so. You don't actually have to can just stand by the wall quietly and observe, but at least you're there.

    And I never know what to say when someone asks, "How are you?" I just say "fine". I don't think they really want to know that I'm about to fall completely apart at any moment....cuz if they REALLY wanted to know how I am, they would ALREADY know how I am, cuz they would have been there from the get go. Does that make sense?

    So, while I have been there for you from the get go, I'm here now....standing quietly by the wall, until you need me.


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