On Being a Consolation

by John Pealrstein

“If you give something to one in need, let the cheerfulness of your face precede your gift, and comfort his sorrow with kind words. When you do this, by your gift the gladness of his mind surpasses even the needs of his body”

— St. Isaac the Syrian, The Ascetical Homilies of St. Isaac the Syrian

I have been wanting to write about how to console and comfort for some time now. I feel that it is an important idea to talk about as it is not something that comes naturally to all people. Though some have a natural gift of empathizing with others which gives them the ability to comfort and console without as much effort, this is not the case for everyone. Some have to put more effort into honing this skill. No matter which group you are a part of, we are all called to be a consolation to others. We know this because we are created in the image of the God who is The Great Consolation of mankind. There are suffering people all around us.

We live in a world of broken hearts. People around you are suffering whether you recognize it or not. These people need a kind word or even just a silent listener. To put it more poetically, in the words of my spiritual father, some people just need someone to “gently stroke their brow.”

Before I talked about how to console the broken-hearted, I want to discuss how not to do this. Both in my own life and the shared experiences of others I have seen/heard of some very poor attempts of speaking to those in need of comfort. I do not want to spend too much time on the negative, so I will tell you a story the illustrates a more grievous failure to comfort and then discuss a very common failure which has the appearance of piety, but in actuality is also likely to wound the recipient.

My wife just recently told me about an incident that occurred to someone she had seen on youtube. She follows a couple with several kids. The mother had just given birth to a set of twins which had to be placed in the NICU. The mother had been traveling back and forth between home and the NICU. Lord only knows the amount of stress and the range of emotions she had been experiencing through all of this. In one of her videos, when she was getting to hold both babies for the first time she broke down and cried. In the comments, someone told her that “she shouldn’t be crying- she should be thankful that her babies are alive.”

This comment is tragic on many levels. First, this assumes that his suffering mother is ungrateful. Secondly, since the comment is based on this false assumption it becomes an attack on the already broken heart. Lastly, this comment takes a truth- that you need to be thankful for what God has given you- and uses it as a weapon. Not everything true needs to be said at any given time. My spiritual father said that the term for that is “truthing people to death.” This comment, far from being a comfort, had the potential to wound the already suffering woman. Please don’t do this.

The story above is a pretty evident failure and one that I have thankfully not experienced personally. However, this next form of failed consolation is something that I see all the time and I believe it is because it has the sound of Christian piety. Here is an illustration of what I mean.

You may have found yourself calling a friend and sharing that you have had a bout with some kind of sickness that has run amok in your home. You are exhausted and the kids are really struggling because you have had to force them to rest. Everything feels like it is falling apart. After you have finished your monologue the person on the other end of the line says “God is in control and this is all for good.”

You can take the paragraph above and insert any kind of hurt or struggle and apply the same “pious response.” It fails in each case. Sometimes those “pious” responses are even used in more tragic situations such as someone who has shared the terminal diagnosis of a loved one. In these situations, I give these people the benefit of the doubt. I think that most of the time these folks are just trying to comfort and don’t know-how. I really believe that the times I have heard this in my own life it has come out of the lips of those who do love and pray for me. This is not malicious. I am writing this not to judge those who have said such things, but rather to give a better way for you to be a brother or sister to those that open up to you.

Now, moving on from the negative, let us look at some of the tools that are needed to properly console others. There are three that I think are the basics- Discernment, honesty, and empathy.

Discernment. To properly comfort others you must have some level of discernment. There are a variety of levels of hurt ranging from financial difficulties to tragic losses and everything in between. There are also an endless variety of personalities that you will encounter that will require different forms of communication. You cannot approach every situation with the same type of communication

Honesty. When I speak of honesty here, I am thinking of being truly human. The poor response of “pious truths” is what I would consider being less than honest and less than human. When someone has a bad day sometimes the best response would be to say “wow, that is rough.” There is nothing wrong with, and I would add, everything right with an honest and human appreciation of the hurt that someone has experienced. The time to give guidance may come later, but at the moment, be honest, be human.

Empathy. This is vital and, in reality, it is possibly the foundation on which to build discernment and honesty. I would say, that if you can empathize, then you will more easily be able to discern and be honest. Empathy is a skill that we must hone. Empathy is important because we do not all go through the same things and yet we must be able to comfort someone in a situation that we may have never faced ourselves. They say that one of the benefits of reading, fiction, in particular, is that it helps you develop the ability to empathize by placing you in the mind of the “sufferer” in the story. Whether or not your read fiction you must find ways to learn to empathize. You must be able to put yourself in their place to the best of your ability. Sometimes this is easier than others such as in the most tragic of situations. In those cases, you may not be able to imagine how they feel, but that in itself is a good place to be because, by saying that, you have just realized that they are in the depths of heartbreak and that will help shut your mouth from foolish utterances and instead lead you to be the silent listener whose only words are in the form of empathetic tears.

However, sometimes we must empathize in a place where we feel like the situation is trivial. Maybe a flat tire doesn’t bother you at all, but for others, that may wreck their day. Or, maybe you are dealing with a child who lost their favorite toy or had a friend stop playing with them. These appear to be nothing compared to the sufferings of your adult self, but they can break the heart of a little one. In either circumstance, you are still required to empathize. Or, further, you may be dealing with a drug addict whose problems are apparently self-inflicted. In this case, we are still called on to be empathetic. My spiritual father has said over and over again that you have no idea what people have experienced that lead them to their current condition nor do you have a clue as to how hard they may be trying even though they outwardly appear to be doing nothing. Empathy requires you to leave the Judgment in God’s hands. God doesn’t see any of our hurts as unimportant. He condescends to us all.

I want to share one last example which comes from my wife’s experience. She was 30 weeks pregnant and had to find a new midwife. She was in a rough spot and didn’t know where to look. It was an emotional situation all the way around. She called up two separate friends to share with. The first friend, after hearing the situation, said “it will all work out.” I want to be clear that this friend meant well, but my wife went away feeling worse than before making the phone call. She then shared her grief with another friend who, after hearing, expressed empathy and affirmed the difficulty of the situation, and told her she would be praying. My wife felt heard and as a result felt comforted.

Final thoughts. Next time someone opens up to you, whether it be about how hard their day at work was or about their husband’s recent diagnosis of stage 4 lung cancer, be that gentle stroke on the brow that they need. If you don’t know what to say then just listen. And no matter what, refrain from harmful “truths.” Do not tell them that it’s all going to work out. That is not the time for that. Just listen and place yourself in their shoes the best you can. When you effectively comfort and console another person you become closer to that person and it deepens your relationship. And, as Christ has said, “ Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”

Suggestions to help hone your skills.

  • think about how you like to be comforted.
  • read the Scriptures and pay close attention to how God comforts His people
  • find someone who you know be good at comforting others and ask for advice from them
  • read the lives of the Saints

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