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The Art of Comforting: What to Say and Do for People in Distress

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We live in an increasingly "virtual" world in which it can be tempting to skip making that true, human connection with someone in pain. Even though our thoughts might be with them, we lack the confidence to reach out, worrying that we will say or do the "wrong" thing.

In this practical, step-by-step guide to what she calls "the art of comforting," Val Walker draws on numerous interviews with "Master Comforters" to guide readers in gently and gracefully breaking through the walls that those who are suffering often erect around themselves. Interviewees include inspiring individuals such as Alicia Rasin, who, as a victim's advocate for the city of Richmond, Virginia, has devoted her life to comforting grieving families devastated by homicide, gang violence, and other traumatic experiences; or Patricia Ellen, who, as a grief counselor and outreach director at the Center for Grieving Children in Portland, Maine, appears on site to support and comfort children, staff, and parents when a school is facing a death, violence, or other crises.

All of us will, at one time or the other, be called upon to offer warmth and support to another human being who is suffering-this book will show you how to answer the call with an open heart.

320 pages, Paperback

First published October 28, 2010

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About the author

Val Walker

4 books5 followers

Val Walker, MS, is a contributing blogger for Psychology Today and the Health Story Collaborative in Boston. Her newest book, 400 Friends and No One to Call: Breaking Through Isolation and Building Community, was released on March 26, 2020, with Central Recovery Press. Walker is the author of The Art of Comforting (Penguin/Random House, 2010) which was a gold medalist for the Nautilus Book Award in 2011.

She received her master of science degree in rehabilitation counseling from Virginia Commonwealth University, and is a rehabilitation consultant, speaker and educator. Her articles and interviews have appeared in AARP, Time, Good Housekeeping, Coping with Cancer, Marie Claire and the Boston Globe.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 40 reviews
Profile Image for Heidi The Reader.
1,376 reviews1,431 followers
February 9, 2021
"Qualities like gentleness, patience, warmth, and empathy can be so undervalued in this day and age that when we need to sit down with someone devastated by a loss or turbulent change in their lives, we often feel unsure about what to say or do." pg 7, ebook.

Author Val Walker discovered first-hand that there is a lack of knowledge about offering comfort in the modern age. She was going through a divorce and relocation, and had no one to confide in. She said her friends and family members were either too busy to give her some of their time or they gave her a type of attention she didn't desire- like mouthing platitudes or giving unwelcome advice.

Walker realized that society has lost its ability to do something as simple as listen and be present. She wrote this book to help others offer this gift to those around them.

"Presence. Unshakable, steady, tender, and empathic presence. Soft strength. That was comfort." pg 10, ebook

She dispels many myths about what comforting may look like, including my concern that I never know what to say when someone shares their inner turmoil with me.

"Myth: Comforters always know what to say. We don't have to know the right thing to say. Sometimes there is really nothing that can be said." pg 21, ebook

After that, Walker interviews mental health professionals from many different modalities, offering different ways that these comforters approach and soothe those around them. From creating art to writing to simply watching television together, there are so many opportunities to spend time and connect with someone in need.

"The language of comforting is a language like any other- it can be learned but, once mastered, can become as effortless as breathing. And if our words and gestures are warm, empathic, and respectful, they will help to create a safe space for the comforter and the one being comforted to inhabit." pg 81

The past year has been devastating for so many. I picked up this book because I never know what to say when someone comes to me with pain or disappointment or heartbreak.

Walker has reassured me that sometimes the best help anyone can give another is to say nothing at all but to offer the gift of your presence and attention. Because at the end of the day, another word for 'comfort' is 'love'. And we all know how to do that already, right?
Profile Image for Robin.
1,433 reviews36 followers
January 18, 2011
Whenever I've been in the company of someone grieving or in distress, I've always felt awkward or uncomfortable because I didn't know what to say or even how to act. After reading through this book, I now feel a little more confident in handling such a situation and just hope I can remember some of phrases and advice given. I really liked some of the phrases to avoid and what to say. Examples include instead of saying "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger.", say "How are you doing with all this?" And not to say the following that, much to my chagrin, I may have once said "You are lucky that you father died peacefully." Instead say "I was so sad to hear the news about your father." Another phrase not to say is "I understand how you feel.", and instead say "I can only imagine how hard this must be." And the most repeated advice is "Just listen and be there."

Other tips include how to start a conversation, showing nonverbal actions, how to write words of comfort (for both written and email notes), and what to do when someone resists our comfort. I also like the last part titled "A Little Guidebook to Comforting Things: A Guide to Comforting Movies, Books, TV and Music" with lists I will be copying for library use.
Profile Image for NTE.
394 reviews43 followers
December 6, 2014
Read for CBR6 - Review Cross posted here

You know those personality tests you take (mostly online now, but I’m from the stone age when I had to take some of mine on a Scan-tron), and they supposedly tell you what careers you’d be good at or what traits are your strongest? Well mine always came/come back teacher, or counselor. Which was a good thing, as I always knew I’d be a teacher, and when it came to my family and friends, even as a kid, I might as well have hung out a sign (a la Lucy from Peanuts) when it came to the counseling thing. Life wound up having slightly different plans for me, but that’s still a very large part of me, that ‘let me help, let me listen, let me… do SOMETHING” instinct that never went away.

But the thing about being that type of person is that a lot of times you feel like you’re in WAY OVER YOUR HEAD, regardless of any training you might have, as life starts throwing more and more complicated situations at you and your people. Somehow you wind up being the only one holding somebody’s hand while they’re dealing with dementia, or you have to explain to a 14-year-old that this time their mom’s cancer is more serious, or your friend has lost another baby and you are 15 states away and you’re staring at the inside of an empty card, waiting for inspiration to strike. And in those moments, it doesn’t matter how much you think you are good at comforting people, the only thing you can truly be sure of is that you are inadequately prepared for THIS. So I decided I could use a little refresher, and picked up The Art of Comforting: What to Say and Do for People in Distress by Val Walker.

Walker does a great job of even writing in a comforting way, of somehow talking you down from the panic attack she must know precipitated you buying this book in the first place by assuring you that there truly is no such thing as a person who is ‘qualified’ to give comfort. By breaking down the lies surrounding comforting – showing that our society has created all sorts of myths about people being “innate comforters”, or that there are certain types of comforting that are ‘better than’ others; that comforters are always available, or that their job is to cheer people up or that they need to have had a similar experience to the troubled person in order to be helpful in anyway. (I know for a fact that this is not true, because, despite my always single status I have comforted my sisters, friends, and roommates through about a million breakups.)

Comfort, she explains, is both an art and a practice: it is something you can observe, it is something you can learn, it is something people – even the most tenderhearted, generous people – struggle with all the time. Walker, as a longtime bereavement counselor herself, is certainly qualified to know, but she doesn’t just rely on her own experience. Through a series of interviews with other effectively comforting individuals – people whose jobs require a certain level of empathy, respect, et al from the list below – Walker manages to make the point that comforting comes in many varieties, is applicable in all settings, and is often a conscious choice that is being made – that it is a deliberate way of interacting with the world that, through practice, a person could become better at.

Each of the interviewed comforters had a fascinating story, a reason why they had chosen their professions, a lesson life had given them that enabled them to see that being comforting was the better choice for them, and I found many of the stories moving, and their perspectives invaluable. Many of them had endured tragedies or difficulties or health issues of their own, which made me think a lot about what breeds those comforting qualities, what kind of ground they grow best in. That it carries through to their other interactions with people – that they are not just comforting in one situation, but, the more they do it, and the better they get at it, the more it translates across the board – was both reassuring and daunting.

What exactly does it mean to be comforting? It means to be present, a startlingly difficult goal in our time-pressured, always-on-the-move society. Comforting does not mean fixing it, which is part of why people are so uncomfortable with it – it’s actually the antithesis of so much of what we value in our culture – to be comforting we have to listen rather than advise; we have to take time and be patient, rather than rushing through things; we have to work without a specific script in mind, letting the the distressed person take the lead; we have to give them our full attention, rather than multitask. We have to allow them to “feel what they feel” rather than expecting them to “cheer up or be strong”, and we have to be able to put many of our own instincts – ego, curiosity, impatience – to the side.

Good comforters, states Walker, share some defining characteristics – The first being that we are capable of giving our full attention. Being empathetic – (rather than competitive – don’t down play or compare situations, don’t get into the suffering Olympics… try to understand that a person’s pain or sadness is their pain or sadness and it is deep and real to them, regardless of other peoples’ experiences) is also essential. Other qualities of truly comforting people – sincerity, respectfulness, patience, caring, reliability (remembering that the situation doesn’t end after you send a card, or once the first round of chemo is completed, for example), warmth, calmness, being non-judgmental, humility, supportiveness, hopefulness, gratefulness, generosity, gentleness, wisdom, adaptability, and strength. Best of all, Walker recognizes that not every person will excel at all aspects of comforting: She advises that we play to our strengths, figure out which of these qualities we embody and embrace them in our quest to become better comforters. And then build up our weaker spots as we can.

(For example, one that I have a particularly difficult time with is setting boundaries – it’s hard not to say “whatever you need, whenever you need, I’ll be there.” But I was impressed by the sections on clarity and realistic boundaries being important – to both the comforter and the comforted. It helps to create & maintain balance in the relationship (nobody feels like they’re taking advantage/getting taken advantage of), and having realistic limits gives the person who needs help the opportunity to reach out knowing that you’re able to help. I’ve really got to work on this, because, in all honesty, I tend to over-help, and then, yeah, I do sometimes feel like “wow, everyone has forgotten that I am also an actual person with feelings and who sometimes needs help too.” Setting boundaries; goals to meet. )

Sections on what to say to avoid the dreaded platitudes that make people want to punch you in the face (“God only gives us what we can handle,” “I know exactly how you feel,” “But you don’t LOOK sick,” “Life’s hard for everybody, you’ve just got to deal with it better,” etc) should perhaps be required reading. Walker also provides other no-nos – interrupting, asking a lot of questions, fidgeting, playing with your cellphone, (some of these would hopefully be common sense, but I have literally seen people on their cell phones at funerals, so maybe not) that everyone would benefit from knowing, as well as a chapter on how to replenish your own comforting stores when you’re running low, which? Also helpful.

I like to write notes & send cards (a holdover from my both my grandmothers, I’m sure), especially if the choice is that or making a phone call, so the section on how to write comforting notes – and taking care to recognize that one note is usually not enough of a presence to actually be all that comforting – was also quite helpful. And Walker not simply disregarding email (or Facebook, or texting) as too gauche or impersonal for comforting purposes is a relief, because I often think the potential of social media in certain situations is underestimated – maintaining communication with people in tough places is one of the absolute highlights of technology, for me, as a chronically ill person. I wouldn’t have been able to keep tabs on my cousin and her preemies in the NICU, if they hadn’t had a blog. I wouldn’t have been able to easily update everybody on my grandmother’s condition while she was in hospice care if 9/10ths of my family hadn’t been in a Facebook group together. And the ability to just check-in on people – and have them get back to you at THEIR convenience – is yet another plus in technology’s favor.

Walker also talks a lot about how to use art as a comforting tool – even if it just means sending your friend a funny cat video, drawing with grieving kids, or sitting and watching movies together – and then backs that up with a huge section at the end with list upon list of comforting (‘quirky’ ‘escapist’ ‘gritty’) media (books, movies, music, TV, YouTube videos), which is a great resource. And she concludes with a ton of books, websites and other resources for further, more specific reading.

The thing about being able to comfort people is that, when you get it right, it’s the best feeling in the world: A person you love needs you, needs SOMETHING, and you were able to help out, even if just for those two seconds. And I feel like this book has reminded me of the ways in which I am innately comforting, and the ways in which I could use some work (boundaries, hopefulness, adaptability) and given me some more tools to add to my toolbox. Trust me when I say that in those moments, when it’s just you, and someone you love, and something awful or difficult or so big it’s impossible to believe it’s actually happening to you, you’ll be glad to have every.single.one you can get your hands on.

(Yes; yes, I did use a West Wing quote as my title. Wanna make something of it?)

*Update, 12-6-14 -> I am unfortunately in dire need of this book's advice right now, following the a death in my family. It's hard to remember & apply all of this stuff in the midst of overwhelming grief and sadness,BUT, it is really great to know you're at least trying things that MIGHT work, and floundering around a little bit less than you might otherwise. Also, I got a very nice reply e-mail from the author, which could not have been more appreciated.
Profile Image for Angie Locke.
2 reviews
December 31, 2010
I cannot recommend this book HIGHLY ENOUGH! It's a life-changer. Please, please, please, read it... so important for everyone to understand who has relationships with people they care about deeply enough to explore ways to communicate and share your heart the most effectively when they are in pain.
Profile Image for Trudy Pomerantz.
605 reviews3 followers
May 12, 2012
A well-written book from someone who understands suffering. Unfortunately, in Christian circles two views seem to predominate when someone is suffering. The first is to tell you that God means it for our good. It is not that this is not true but what is being forgotten is that we were told to weep with those who weep. Knowing that we live in a fallen world and that God has a plan in all that we are going through does not take away the pain. Most Christians know that God is sovereign and don't need to be told this. In the middle of tragedy, as Ms. Walker says, we just need to be there for people.

The second view that I have met while I am struggling through problems and I confess this to another believer is an accusation that I do not trust God enough. Some seem to feel a need to discern the sin in us whether God is punishing us for something or whether we are not dealing with our path in this life as perfectly as we should. These people should read this book which I think is a far more Biblical approach. Unless somebody is in open rebellion against God, the best thing to say is a simple "I'll pray for you" after listening to them talk. While we can try our best to imitate God in his role as a comforter, it is truly only He who can "mend the broken-hearted."

"Morna offered me something that few professionals or laypeople are willing or even able to offer. She allowed me to fall apart in her presence. She didn't judge me, diagnose me, hire me or fire me, bill me, instruct me, save me, or heal me. ... She just sat with me amid the mess in my kitchen, the mess in my life, and the mess in my heart and allowed me to be in my pain. ... Presence. Unshakable, steady, tender, and empathetic presence. Soft strength. That was comfort. That was Morna's gift to me."
Profile Image for SIA.
53 reviews4 followers
September 19, 2018
Do people really need a book to know that when someone's sad you have to listen???
235 reviews
September 14, 2019
I borrowed this copy but I think this book is worth keeping around as a reference.
Profile Image for Toviel.
141 reviews19 followers
June 28, 2016
I really wish I could rate this higher, because there's a lot of good information in it. It's not the most in-depth comforting guide out there, but it is a very good starting point for anyone who genuinely wants to improve on comforting others.

The downside is that the book is extremely unbalanced, especially so when the author begins discussing the significant comforters that she interviewed for the primary material of the novel. The book slams to a halt to talk about their backgrounds, then quickly list off their comforting suggestions at the end of their profile in bullet points. If it had been integrated in a bit better, this review could easily have had another star added to it.

The last fourth of the book is even worse, as it just amounts to the author listing off music, movies, books, and the like that the author feels is comforting, but without any real explanation about why. Given that this section is aimed at helping people who need comfort in their lives, trigger or content warnings probably should have been listed next to some of the darker titles. Unless you're already familiar with the titles listed, it's really not that much of a help. It's even more jarring since the recommended reading and website section has mini-descriptions for every title.

At the end of the day? Even with these problems, I'd happily recommend it to anyone that wants to improve themselves but doesn't know where to begin, or doesn't like heavy material. It's not a bad book, it's just not perfect.
Profile Image for Michelle.
21 reviews6 followers
July 2, 2015
Thanks to Tumblr, I picked up this title with the hopes of understanding how best I can comfort those who are hurting in my life. I've never been at ease with providing comfort and never knowing what to say to those who are so evidently hurting. I felt self-conscious and uncertain of what to say and how to be. Then, my mother-in-law suddenly fell ill and later died rather quickly earlier this year, which put my comforting abilities to the test. Much of what I learned in this book helped me to comfort my husband and other members of his and my family during this rough time.

The first third of this book helps point out the various kinds of comforting we can do and the ways we can comfort that come naturally to us. Comfort when forced isn't much help (both for the comforter and comforted). I learned that my comfort style is that of the background player. I don't put myself out in the forefront, but cook and clean and keep a sort of normalcy going in the throws of chaos. It was fascinating the case studies and interviews Val had with other therapists and comforters throughout the rest of the book. Since I'm not a therapist, some of these weren't all that applicable, but they did resonate with me on a certain basic level. I've learned a lot and I recommend it to others who are looking for advice on how better to be there for those in need.
Profile Image for Jen.
69 reviews
February 19, 2013
This book is so applicable to life in general if you want to improve relationships and be a better wife, mother, daughter, friend, neighbor, etc! I am truly inspired by this book. I think everyone should read it because it offers insight into how the person going through grief wants to be loved. There is no way to understand something completely unless you experience it or read about others that experience it. This gives you an inside view of how people in distress feel and how to give them what they truly need.
Profile Image for Bryan Tanner.
531 reviews212 followers
November 21, 2017
I'm terrible at comforting others. I think logically, not emotionally. I'm so bad at comforting people in fact that I sought help from a read a book to help me understand how it's done. The book is just a collection of interviews of the most comforting people the author knows. Reading their stories was just what I needed to prime my pump. After reading other's stories, they helped me recognize opportunities to practice empathy in my own life. Over the course of a few months, I became hypersensitive to opportunities to apply the things I had been reading about.
Profile Image for Anna Kendig.
70 reviews20 followers
July 6, 2016
Really useful as a reflection tool with parish care teams or just for anyone who wants to think about how to be with people who are going through difficult times. Offers impressions from professionals in the non-profit, therapeutic and ministerial fields as well as just general suggestions like a what not to say/what's better" grid that offers better options than saying "Maybe it's for the best" to someone who's in a difficult place. Highly readable.
Profile Image for locrian.
91 reviews4 followers
March 6, 2019
This book is easy to read and covers everything. The thing that makes it great is that it gives advice for any kind of person, so you can develop your style of comforting based on your own strengths, and learn how to improve your weaker areas. I read it because I'm a counselor and a follower of captain awkward's blog (where I got the recommendation) but really everyone would benefit from reading this book, it will help everyone you interact with.
Profile Image for Nathan.
208 reviews7 followers
December 10, 2011
It is good to take the time out and consider the ideas presented in the book. I just wish it could have been presented in a more effective manner. I found that passages ran too long filled with details burying the message.
Profile Image for Liaken.
1,498 reviews
November 28, 2012
This book offers its message clearly and simply. Even just skimming through it, I gleaned enough to gain perspective on the art of offering comfort. Putting in the tables was a great idea. There are also interesting lists of resources at the back of the book.
Profile Image for Pearse Anderson.
Author 5 books33 followers
February 14, 2016
Very aged for the modern day, hardly takes the internet into account for this. Good stuff, good examples,mouth the latter half is full of cumbersome lists about good movies and whatnot. Eh, I could see it be done better and in a less wordy fashion.
348 reviews1 follower
June 19, 2011
There was not much information for me, coming through the school of Hard Knocks, but I will recommend this.
Profile Image for Karen.
520 reviews3 followers
August 2, 2011
I freakin' love this book! The tone of the book is wonderful and well...comforting.
Profile Image for NiaDwynwen.
110 reviews4 followers
September 26, 2011
This book is very user-friendly. If you can skim through the little personal stories, there are some really helpful ideas about how to effectively comfort.
106 reviews2 followers
October 18, 2011
very useful book, bang on the point! highly recommend, comforting is indeed a lost art in this fast paced world
3 reviews1 follower
December 30, 2011
Book includes many helpful thoughts and suggestions for those who want to comfort others.
Profile Image for Tonya.
95 reviews
October 8, 2012
A friend of mine lost her husband & this book was helpful.
Profile Image for Michelle.
846 reviews1 follower
March 21, 2014
As a whole I wasn't impressed with this book, which is mostly composed of interviews, however, it has one wonderful treasure worth reading it for - the conversational suggestions.
Profile Image for Skyler.
400 reviews
November 12, 2014
Five stars to the lists of things that are so much better to say than others. That elevated the book for me despite my cynicism about the more woo woo parts.
Profile Image for Michelle.
10 reviews
August 16, 2017
Good book on how to help those who need comforting. Many great examples of situations. Excellent supplement book for Stephen Ministers.
Profile Image for Sherry.
12 reviews
January 23, 2019
This book is loaded with practical ideas, anecdotes, and resources for all types of comforting. The author interviews several people in comforting professions or types of work. I really enjoyed the variety of ideas presented here and how she makes use of art and nature therapy, including animals. She also wisely presents a chapter on helping comforters take care of themselves, as compassion fatigue is common in the work of helping and caring for people. Though I find her resource list quite subjective (some suggestions I would not find personally helpful at all!), it is a good springboard for finding helpful resources. I really liked that the tone of her writing felt comforting, and it was a pleasure to read this book even while it covers often painful and difficult work.
65 reviews
February 4, 2022
This is a very useful book, with a lot of excellent information. The reason I’m only giving it 3 stars is because it turns a bit formulaic, and often belabors somewhat obvious points. It is a calming book, and points out a lot which ought to be obvious, but may not be. Overall I’d recommend it if you are interested in the topic, but give the caveat of needing to push through a bit. Also, I didn’t personally feel like the section on comforting things was necessary, as that is going at change person to person. But maybe others would find it useful. Happy reading!
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