There have been few times in my life when I have felt as helpless as I do when a friend, family member or co-worker encounters tragic life events.
It may be the loss of a loved one. Or illness may strike which permanently alters life or threatens to end it.
In either situation, I am always filled with the desire to help and to make things better. Instead, I often find myself floundering in a sea of doubt, wondering how I can possibly do either.
While it's no comfort, I find those around me to be in the exact same predicament. It is an interesting study of humanity to see just how others act when tragedy comes knocking at someone else's door.
Some become immobilized by the drama unfolding before them. Not certain how to respond, they don't do anything. They remain detached and unresponsive, simply because they don't know what to do.
Then, there are those who find the tragedy of sickness or death just too inviting. They speak sadly, in hushed, knowing tones. They become the tragic doomsayers, eager to spread the news.
"Have you heard? Well, you know my Aunt Edna had just the same thing and it really doesn't look good …"
And there are those who isolate themselves from these situations, often because the real-life circumstances are uncomfortable and remind them of their own mortality. And that's a mirror they'd much rather not look into.
We are frail, clumsy and awkward human beings. Still, I believe we all ultimately desire to help in times of need in some meaningful way. But how? What is the best course of action? How can we be helpful and considerate during those times when someone we care about is facing life's challenges?
First, try and gauge how the other person is reacting to the circumstances. This can only be done by conveying your empathy and showing that you care. Respect how they choose to cope, even if you may not agree with their choice.
Offer yourself as a listener. When they are ready to talk, validate their feelings. They may be scared, sad or overwhelmed. You have an opportunity to offer a safe place to for that person to discuss these fearful feelings. Avoid telling the person how they should feel or what they should do. You should be there to listen, offering advice only when asked. Silence is OK too, because there may be times when the person may want only the comfort of your presence.
Talk to them. Tell them that you love them, tell them that you're sorry, ask them how they're doing.
Don't be afraid to laugh with them, to cry with them or to touch them. Be honest with them, but don't feel sorry for them. Your understanding helps protect their dignity and pride during a very difficult time.
Ask them what you can do, but be sincere and specific. It's the only way for the person that you care about to know that you mean it. Offer help with those tangible, practical everyday matters - cooking, shopping, yard care, babysitting, housecleaning. Find out what they are most concerned about, and then see if you can help alleviate that specific concern.
When you're thinking about that person, call them up and tell them so.
If the person is facing a life-altering disease, find out all that you can about it. Armed with knowledge and understanding, you can better talk about it with the person involved.
Most of all, do everything to help sustain the seeds of hope that the person may have. For without hope, there is nothing left but despair. The human soul craves hope and without it, it shrivels and dies.
Emily Dickenson described hope as "the thing with feathers that perches in the soul, and sings the tune without words, and never stops at all."
With just a little thought and consideration, the role of comforter might come naturally after all and it will be then that we may hear some soulful fluttering of our own.
Theresa Larson is the administration manager and biweekly columnist for the Lodi News-Sentinel.