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How to Offer Comfort to a Struggling Soul
So, you see someone struggle—a colleague, acquaintance, close friend, your partner, or a family member. You want to offer comfort, you want them to know that you want to offer comfort, you want to be seen witnessing their struggle. And you feel completely incompetent and almost don’t want to say anything because you’re afraid you’ll say something stupid. When we see another person struggle we instinctively want to offer help or comfort, if we can relate to this person’s struggle it strengthens our empathetic connection, and also our discomfort.
What if we could offer a meaningful response? Meaningful, in that it connects with the person’s suffering and doesn’t involve a) giving the stock i’m sorry reply or, b) distracting them with a projection of positivity which is really designed to soothe our own discomfort at the other person’s struggle. What can we say to someone who is struggling with illness, loss, or other hardship?
It’s okay to offer complete, vulnerable honesty and say something such as i don’t know what to say and then pause. It’s okay to allow silent spaces that may feel awkward. Many of the wisest and most sacred messages can only be communicated in such silences. Listen to your gut as you actively listen to the struggling person. Focus on them, what they are telling you and also what they are not.
You aren’t going to fix what’s broken and that isn’t your role anyhow. We aren’t always meant to fix things—the art of living really involves learning how to behave compassionately and have patience when we feel discomfort. Pain erodes our humanity, it makes us self focussed and fearful and mean. A curious compassion and a soft and gentle atmosphere can offer more comfort that you can ever know. Hold space—that’s sometimes all you need to do. Just be in the moment with that person and their struggles. Be a soft landing spot for a struggling someone.
If someone has just received a grave or terminal health diagnoses, keep your schadenfreude in check. Don’t ask impertinent questions, let them disclose as much as they feel comfortable. Also, check your sh1t if they want to talk about sober things that make you feel uncomfortable—let them, this is their journey and you are along for the ride. Remember the objective is to comfort and accommodate them, and not have them comfort or accommodate you. Ask how can I best support you instead of let me know if there’s anything I can do.
Live in the now. The most important thing for a suffering person is embodiment, being anchored to the present moment. Joy can co-exist with sorrow. In fact it feels very necessary to amplify mindful joy and transform every mundane moment into an extraordinary one in order to carry the heaviest of struggles.
Soothe. Be a Balm. Be water—take the shape of your surroundings. Pause and watch and listen. It is not about you—be a guest, always a guest.
You may feel small and insignificant and helpless. Don’t let despair block your connection with a suffering person. You likely won’t be able to fix their struggle, however the connection you create with them will help them endure, and that is enough.
Remember that a seed splits open in order to fulfill it’s purpose.
Remember that a lotus flower grows in the stagnant mud: it closes and sinks every night and rises through the mud and opens every morning. Despite the mud which surrounds it, the lotus remains beautiful and radiant and gentle.
Remember that the caterpillar has to die and decay before transforming and emerging as a butterfly.
The first law of thermodynamics states that energy is neither created nor destroyed—each moment we are transforming. This is a metaphysical and universal truth. Whatever awful thing is happening around you, know that it is part of a transformation.
Despair blinds us. When we despair we are predicting the future by projecting our arrogant bleakness onto uncertainty. Despair is the ultimate extreme of self worship. Despair arises from our inability to detach. When you greet despair, greet it with curious compassion, with embodied presence, with now-ness.
Bleak and trying times call us to practise compassionate resilience. Struggles call us to sit with the uncomfortable when we would much rather run away and avoid. They call us to practise boundaries and to honour them. Struggles and suffering require us to connect with and know ourselves fully in deep and mysterious ways so that we may be present for others without having them serve us. Remember intentionality and that it’s not about you at all.