Ten Sparks: An Uplifting Journaling Exercise

By Val Walker

5DA23A988EA8488C961A390ACBC49AABIn times when we feel lonely, lost, or isolated we tend to block out the memories of the fulfilling moments of our lives. It just seems our mind is full of flat, grey images and our hearts feel empty.

When I’d like to give myself a boost of energy and brightness, I rely on a powerful, yet simple little journaling exercise called Ten Sparks. As a rehabilitation specialist for people with disabilities and mental illness for 24 years, I’ve used this helpful exercise with the individuals I’ve served and witnessed lovely memories springing back to life when they’ve shared their journals with me. I recommend doing this exercise once a month to reflect on the moments that leave a warm glow in our heart. It’s uplifting as well as revealing and can give us signs for the right path for us to take. (Some people have remarked that this exercise is similar to keeping a gratitude journal. The major difference with Ten Sparks is that we examine the patterns or themes after we have listed ten memories.)

In the following Ten Sparks exercise, we reflect and recall ten moments of warm experiences within the past few months—bursts of energy that felt fulfilling or meaningful. That moment may have been brief or fleeting but it left a lasting impression. The more specific the recollection, the better.

Ten Sparks

Over the past few months I remember these energizing moments—I felt a spark, a glow.

  1. At the river, I saw a little boy running and singing while playing with his dog. His joy was contagious!
  2. I helped my friend Doreen while we spoke on the phone about her granddaughter—felt so good to comfort her.
  3. My supervisor told me that the safety curriculum I wrote was just approved and now ready to launch—he praised me for my persistence to get that damn thing finished!
  4. When I donated my old books to the senior center, a woman shared she was a Ken Follett reader and was so happy to have my collection.
  5. My father told me he loved his handmade birthday card.
  6. I gave a simple little dinner party for two friends. We had a lot of laughs talking about how none of us could cook and chat at the same time without ruining the food.
  7. Talking to my neighbor on the patio, we paused for a moment to marvel at two butterflies that landed near us. My neighbor chuckled and said, “They seem to like us.”
  8. I took photos of daffodils on a lush, green hillside and posted them on Facebook.
  9. My niece was wowed by all my African violets blooming with pink and lavender blossoms.
  10. I love the poem “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver. I read this out loud to my pastor when I was feeling depressed, but I got chills as the words resonated so strongly.

The most common themes (patterns) that these ten sparks reveal to me are:

My love of nature and natural beauty.

My love of service to others.

My love of nurturing others.

I like feeling a sense of accomplishment.

Given these themes, a good way to build more fulfilling activities in my life could be volunteering for a nature organization such as the Audubon Society. It also might be fun, just for starters, to go to their monthly potluck dinner where I can bring my ambrosia dish.

I hope readers of the Stories Between can enjoy this journaling practice, and that it may help you as much as it has helped me. May your warm recollections give you guidance!

valVal Walker, MS, is the author of The Art of Comforting:  What to Say and Do for People in Distress(Penguin, 2010), and a Nautilus Book Award Gold Medalist in 2011. The Art of Comforting was listed as recommended reading by the Boston Public Health Commission’s Guide for Survivors of the Marathon Bombing. Val’s articles have appeared in Whole Living Magazine, AARP Bulletin, Coping with Cancer Magazine, and other national publications. Formerly a rehabilitation counselor, she now works as an activities specialist leading groups for seniors with Alzheimer’s, and other groups with disabilities. To learn more about Val you can visit her website, Comforting in Action. 

Turning to Others After Loss

By Val Walker

It can be difficult to break out of isolation after the loss of someone dear to us. It takes an enormous amount of courage, hope and energy to reach out and find the support we need. Typical self-help tips and quick fixes for getting “out there” and finding “your people” might not offer the best solutions for a grieving person. Indeed, we might not even want solutions at all—maybe we just want a little comfort.

As a former rehabilitation counselor for 18 years, supporting my clients as they braved through major life losses, I often reminded them to be patient with themselves. It takes time to “get back out there” and get to know people we can trust and count on. In vulnerable stages of grieving, feeling anxious, tentative and alone, it’s easy to give up quickly on new connections when they don’t seem genuine enough, or warm enough. Instead, staying home feels so much better with Netflix, a cat in our lap, and a nice warm drink. Eventually, however, bored with the emptiness of our isolation, we might muster up the wherewithal to get out again. Hopefully, each time we try a new meet-up or social event, it gets easier to make new friends.

Fortunately, even one solid relationship can make all the difference in making our lives feel normal again, and restoring our confidence. I’ve heard inspiring success stories of rebuilding support after loss, and learned that certain attributes in people tended to help grieving people more than others.

I’d like to offer practical wisdom from grief support group participants who shared reassuring stories of connections that helped them live with loss. Above all, they insisted, the key to choosing a supportive group or person is to feel safe, accepted and “heard.” It is a healing experience to be able to sit with a person or a group who listens, acknowledges and validates our experience. We each have a unique and personal way of grieving, and it is essential that no one pushes us to “get over it,” or go through our grief in any “right” way. According to the Hospice Foundation of America, we might never completely recover from a loss, but we can learn to live with loss in our own way. We know we are in the presence of a truly comforting person when we feel encouraged to be ourselves in times of uncertainty, doubt and transition.

Essential qualities of people who are comforting for others:

Attentive listeners: We feel heard.

Empathic:  We sense they feel what we feel. They “get it” on a deeper level.

Patient: We don’t feel rushed to “get over” our loss.

Nonjudgmental, open-minded: We feel free to express what is true for us. They don’t tell us what to think or do.

Reliable: They keep their commitments (and don’t overpromise): We can count on them.

Warm, kind, compassionate: They smile and welcome us. They put us at ease, or show affection.

Genuine: They mean what they say, even when they say, “I don’t know what to say.”

Hopefully, we might turn to a friend or family member who has a few of these comforting qualities. But if we need to find more support, there are ways to meet comforting people in our communities.

Here are two of the most effective approaches for grieving people to rebuild social support:

Grief Support Groups and Individual Grief Counseling

Hospices, hospitals, behavioral health agencies, and other centers for loss offer support groups and counseling facilitated by a licensed social worker or trained grief counselor. (At the very least, these organizations can give referrals to support groups and counselors.) In a natural, unpressured way, grieving people in a support group can meet others who have much in common, and who understand and value their experience of loss. With a support group or an individual counselor, we feel accepted, and reassured that we are not alone. Once we break through our sense of isolation, it’s easier to take the next, brave steps to reaching out to others in our community for friendship and fellowship.

I’d like to add that for me, personally, even though I was a counselor, after my loss, I needed grief support groups to restore my confidence and courage to get out and socialize again. On top of that, as an introvert, I was highly sensitive to any group of people. As superficial and cold as the world could feel, it was just too easy to give up and give in to isolation unless I had a trusted support group helping me keep the faith. Facebook, social media, and typical social meet-ups were not enough for finding solid, reliable people to count on. Being well-connected didn’t mean being well-supported. Even though I had a hundred friends on Facebook, and a hundred more colleagues, building relationships I could count on was the most difficult task I’ve had to master in life. Yet to be honest, it’s also been the most rewarding.


We can meet like-minded and comforting people in organizations where people share their compassion, wisdom and generosity. We can join a group with a sense of purpose and fellowship, even for just a few hours a month. There are hundreds of causes, missions and projects that need us. If we are still grieving, it’s important to choose a volunteer opportunity that best reflects what is truly life-affirming for us as a person. Grieving people have shared with me that what is rewarding as a volunteer is what makes meaning in their lives. “Meaning-making” activities are key. In short, whatever we do as a volunteer, it’s best when it feels authentic, purposeful and right for us. It could involve music, nature, animals, history, serving others, deeper learning, or creating community. In volunteer settings where we are “in our element,” we can meet people who welcome and engage us. And eventually, over the weeks and months, new friendships can develop.

Other Popular Ways Grieving People Rebuild Support (in face-to-face interaction):

Religious and Spiritual Activities, Retreats: Ideally, there is comfort in gathering together to share a sacred experience.

Sports: Yes, bonding surely happens as part of a team or a group of fans!

Learning: Classes, Study Groups, Workshops, Continuing Education, Community Education. When we’re passionately interested in a topic, we’re breaking through our isolation and following our calling to new people, places and things.

Animal Companions and Therapy Animals: Shy or anxious people can connect better with humans when their animal companions are with them.

Exploring, Traveling, and Hosting other Travelers: A sense of wonder and adventure has a way of connecting us with others.

Social Activism, Advocacy:  There is plenty of injustice, stigma and inequality we can face when we team up with fellow activists and advocates. We don’t feel alone when we come together for a cause.

Expression through the Arts or Arts Therapies:  Joining in a song or dance, we lose ourselves in the magic of the moment. Before we know it, we’re feeling better.

The list above is not complete, but many grieving people I’ve known have transformed their lives by taking part in any one of these social experiences. Hopefully, we find the right, comforting kinds of people as we step into our new endeavors with an open mind and a willingness to explore and learn.

The most comforting people I’ve ever met have lived through great losses in their own lives. Those who have learned to live with loss are the ones we are fortunate to meet in our quest to rebuild our support networks. Whether we are singing in a choir, or volunteering at a food pantry, or watching a ball game with neighbors, comforting people are often there to help us break through our fear and awkwardness. They come from all cultures, backgrounds and ages. We might be surprised. They will welcome us with a radiant smile, and recognize us because they have been through grief and loneliness themselves.

Hopefully, we won’t shy away for too long.

valVal Walker, MS, is the author of The Art of Comforting:  What to Say and Do for People in Distress(Penguin, 2010), and a Nautilus Book Award Gold Medalist in 2011. The Art of Comforting was listed as recommended reading by the Boston Public Health Commission’s Guide for Survivors of the Marathon Bombing. Val’s articles have appeared in Whole Living Magazine, AARP Bulletin, Coping with Cancer Magazine, and other national publications. Formerly a rehabilitation counselor, she now works as an activities specialist leading groups for seniors with Alzheimer’s, and other groups with disabilities. To learn more about Val you can visit her website, Comforting in Action. 

10 Myths about Comforting a Grieving Person

By Val Walker

Myth1: You shouldn’t try to offer comfort unless you know what to say.

We don’t have to know the right thing to say. Sometimes there is really nothing that can be said. We might at least say we are sorry to hear about their loss, and acknowledge their loss. We still offer to show up, even if we don’t know what to say, because there are many, many ways to connect and communicate, depending on what that person desires – listening to their favorite songs, bringing catnip for their cat, baking a meatloaf, dumping their trash, playing a game of cards, doing their nails, watching Netflix together. We offer our time and our presence, and see what happens. Even Tweeting our comfort in little ways helps, by saying, “I’m thinking about you now, and I hope you are getting through today.”

Myth 2: Offer your assistance by saying, “Call me if you need me.”

It’s always better to be proactive by letting them know what we can do for them. Reach out with something simple and concrete. “I can call you Monday night,” is better than saying, “Call me if you need me.” People in distress suffer more when they are “left in the dark” about when contact will be made. No one wants to appear needy by having to call out for help.

Myth 3: To be effective at comforting we need to have lots of time to provide enough comfort.

We can be comforting in a matter of minutes, even in seconds. Little acts of caring can make a big difference for someone in distress.

Myth 4: We should try to cheer the person up when they are down, and encourage them to be positive. It’s our job to make the person feel better.

Allow the person to honestly feel what they are feeling. It is important to acknowledge what the person is telling you and acknowledge their loss. Insisting on showing the person “the bright side” of their experience can make the person feel invalidated, unheard, or unaccepted.

Myth 5:  People typically recover from the death of a loved one in a year or two. We should help the person move on with their lives.  

Grieving is a unique process for every individual, and the grief might never end completely. The Hospice Foundation of America says it best: “Grief never ends. Over time we learn to live with loss.”

Myth 6: We should be able to see results after we have helped a grieving person—we aim to make a difference in their lives. If not, we haven’t really helped.

Offering comfort is much more like offering a gift with no strings attached. Our comfort is given freely. The grieving person is allowed to respond in their own way, and in their own time.:

Myth 7:  Once we have reached out once or twice with our condolence, that should be enough. We don’t want to bombard the person while they are going through such a hard time.

It is wise to gently check in with the grieving person, every couple of weeks or once a month. It can be a brief check-in, without any pressure for the person to respond. Just letting the person know you are thinking about them, and asking how they are doing is a way of showing you are there for the long haul. Also, you can check in by inviting the person to join you for a phone call, or for lunch, or a social gathering. The grieving person will not feel forgotten, even if they turn down an opportunity to join in an activity.

Myth 8: We are not doing a good job of comforting unless we offer a hug, and show our affection, our warmth and love.

We don’t have to be “touchy feely” to be effective at comforting. Just listening quietly, or showing that we care with a kind gift, or offering to do errands such as walking their dog, or sending a thoughtful card —all of these gestures of comforting are genuinely loving things we can do.

Myth 9:  We should help the grieving person put things in perspective, by comparing their situation to what could be worse.

Comparing our experiences (“It could be worse…”) with each other is never helpful. No one has the last word on what is most painful for anyone else. It is best to just listen with an open mind and an open heart. Empathic listening and acceptance is a gift for a person devastated by a loss.

Myth 10:  Comforting skills can’t really be taught. People either have that gift or not.

Most of us learn to comfort others and ourselves throughout our entire lives. Opportunities for comforting arise every day. It is an art that we can always practice–and the more practice, the more wisdom we gain.

valVal Walker, MS, is the author of The Art of Comforting:  What to Say and Do for People in Distress(Penguin, 2010), and a Nautilus Book Award Gold Medalist in 2011. The Art of Comforting was listed as recommended reading by the Boston Public Health Commission’s Guide for Survivors of the Marathon Bombing. Val’s articles have appeared in Whole Living Magazine, AARP Bulletin, Coping with Cancer Magazine, and other national publications. Formerly a rehabilitation counselor, she now works as an activities specialist leading groups for seniors with Alzheimer’s, and other groups with disabilities. To learn more about Val you can visit her website, Comforting in Action.

When We Can’t “Get Over It”

I just saw the movie, Manchester by the Sea, and witnessed a man named Lee Chandler trapped in grief, guilt and utter hell. Movie-goers who only want to enjoy an uplifting grief recovery story are certainly disappointed. This is a heartbreaking story of being broken by the pain of devastating loss. As depressing as this story may appear to an audience who wants Lee to “get over it,” I found a message of compassion and acceptance for those who can never completely recover.

No matter how disappointed we are in Lee for not living up to our expectations, at least not everyone abandons him, and he can hold on to a few reliable relationships. There is a hero in this movie named George, Lee’s good friend, who is a rock of strength, acceptance and maturity. George is the one who gives me hope in the midst of so much tragedy because he steps up as Lee’s true friend, an older and wiser man he can count on when he cannot even count on himself. The takeaway for me is the importance of a long-lasting, solid friendship, especially when we are called to “wear the big boy pants” when our friend is too broken to cope.

In reaching out to people in times of grief and distress, I aspire to be like George, a good friend to count on. And even though I may not meet high expectations of “being there” the way I’d like to, at least I can check in with my friend on a regular basis, and offer a few things I can realistically provide. It is important for me to be honest about what I can truly deliver, not over-promise, and yet give my friend acceptance and love, even if I can only do or say very little. Empathy, good listening, patience is all I might be able to give, or maybe assisting with an errand or preparing a meal.

What grieving people fear is that they will be abandoned because they are not pulling their own weight to be a “good” friend/parent/uncle/brother/co-worker–afraid of letting people down. They worry that they cannot reciprocate, because the mental and physical exhaustion of grieving drains their energy for returning favors, helping others, or initiating acts of kindness.  To comfort people who are too incapacitated by grief, distress or illness requires our patience, maturity, and strength. This is why it is a gift to be comforting for someone in pain. We offer our best comfort by not expecting that person to “get better” or pay us back in any way. Indeed, the Oxford dictionary definition of “to comfort” means to “be strong with” from the Latin, con forte, “with strength.”

But in giving comfort, being “strong with” the one we are serving, we must be clear with ourselves about our intentions and our expectations, as we might not see “improvement” in our loved one’s response to our comforting. We must accept that no matter what we say or do, we can’t make someone feel better. Most of us never completely “get over” our grief, according to the Hospice Foundation of America. In their guidance about grieving, they tell us we can only learn to live with grief, and that grieving is not simply a task that we “get over.”

I keep thinking of George in Manchester by Sea. When I hear people complain about the depressing story and how they are disappointed in Lee, the protagonist, I do my best to remind them about George, though he’s only a “supporting” character. Often the comforters in our own lives are “supporting” characters like George, not in the spotlight, standing by in the background, holding a place for us, a rock for us, a sanctuary for us.

Thankfully, in real life, I have a few comforters like George, reliable, trustworthy friends and colleagues who have given me the gift of comforting. I will never completely get over some losses, but I have wonderful people to count on. I’ve learned from them how to be there for others, and sometimes I’ve been a comfort to my comforters in their own times of need. Comforting comes around and goes around. We take turns restoring each other, each time freely giving our gift– love without strings attached. And when I am down, I try to think of all I’ve been given without strings attached.

valVal Walker, MS, is the author of The Art of Comforting:  What to Say and Do for People in Distress(Penguin, 2010), and a Nautilus Book Award Gold Medalist in 2011. The Art of Comforting was listed as recommended reading by the Boston Public Health Commission’s Guide for Survivors of the Marathon Bombing. Val’s articles have appeared in Whole Living Magazine, AARP Bulletin, Coping with Cancer Magazine, and other national publications. Formerly a rehabilitation counselor, she now works as an activities specialist leading groups for seniors with Alzheimer’s, and other groups with disabilities. To learn more about Val you can visit her website, Comforting in Action.

Walden Pond Forever: A Conversation with Barbara Olson

by Val Walker

Barbara Olson photo 1Barbara Olson, MSW, LICSW, is a nature photographer and docent at Henry David Thoreau Farm. She recently retired from her position as Dialysis Social Worker at Massachusetts General Hospital.

I met Barbara in Concord, Massachusetts, on a bright October day at a friendly café on a quaint, bustling main street. Enjoying my bowl of butternut squash chili at the counter on my lunch break, I noticed a woman about my age smiling at me. In seconds, we were chatting about Concord, Walden Pond, and Thoreau’s writings. Barbara was pleased to tell me she was a docent at Henry David Thoreau’s famous farm nearby, even though she lived closer to Boston and worked full time as a social worker at Mass General Hospital. On weekends she was a birdwatcher, photographer, history buff, hiker, explorer—so much more than a social worker.

What struck me about our conversation was her joyous dedication to this historic town, her love of Walden Pond and the writings of Thoreau. Her warm, genuine contentment radiated from her sense of place, sense of belonging, and sense of discovery, and invigorated me just listening to her story. I’d recently moved to the Boston area, and was already doubting why I’d moved here after my disappointment with a new job.

But I found a message in Barbara’s story.

Though a native of Michigan, Barbara had made Massachusetts her home in the ways that nourished her independent spirit and zest for learning and exploring. Clearly, from her story, it heartened me to hear it was not about our jobs, but about loving where we live.

Within a year, we became friends. (Yes, I did stay in Massachusetts.) I invited her for an interview not only because I’d been so touched by her story of how Walden Pond had inspired her, but I was intrigued that she had never burned out during her decades of social work with people in pain and distress. Barbara had overcome compassion fatigue, big city fatigue, and even world fatigue by making Walden Pond her sanctuary—her own, private paradise.

What first attracted you to Walden Pond?

Barbara Olson photo 2Barbara:  I’d heard about the historic significance of Walden Pond (actually a lake and the deepest in Massachusetts), but at first, I really just wanted a place to swim outdoors. That was 30 years ago! Going there most weekends all these years, swimming in the mornings alone, I developed a deep relationship with the pond itself, the wildlife of the pond, and the surrounding woods.

How does a visit to Walden Pond restore you?

Barbara: As a full-time clinical social worker at Mass General Hospital, my quiet times at Walden Pond on weekends have been essential to keeping my life in balance. Even before I step into the pond for my morning swim, I’ll sit on a rock at the pond’s edge, and get oriented to my surroundings. Before I do anything, I need to settle in, to be still, to watch the birds, and listen to their calls. Though I’ve only been a birder for a few years, I find recognizing and appreciating bird songs brings another dimension to the wooded surroundings, and definitely pulls me away from the chatter in my head.

Barbara Olson photo 3After taking my time sitting on the rock, I step slowly into the pond. Not only is the deep water cool and refreshing, but by swimming leisurely around the edges of the pond, watching the fish, turtles, and dragonflies, I can empty my mind, and be present to life right in front of me. The turquoise, blue and green colors of the water, the sunlight dancing through the trees and reflecting on the pond, the vibrant birdsong, the wide open sky above me—all give me a sense of peace. There is nothing quite like being in the moment, your mind open and attentive to the natural world around you. I can feel my thoughts slowing down, my mind calming and clearing.

This weekend routine has been a form of respite that helped me transition from my busy world of “doing” and into the quiet of nature. As a care provider for patients and their families, I know I needed to make time to nourish myself as well.  This year I retired from my long-time position at the hospital. Now I have even more time for enjoying and observing the outdoors. My relationship continues to deepen and grow with Walden Pond and with nature in general.

Have you always liked swimming and being by water?

Barbara: Yes, that’s true. I grew up in Michigan, near Elizabeth Lake, in Waterford Township. During my childhood years, I swam almost every day of the summer. It was so easy to walk or ride my bike to the lake. My happiest memories are about the simple pleasures of a rainstorm. I would throw on my bathing suit, run outside in the rain and hurry to watch the water rushing through the culverts of the road. The neighborhood kids and I would try to float sticks and other objects on the racing waters, and marvel at how they would speed through the culverts and off into little streams.

Another memory is how I loved butterflies! I could spend hours just watching them hopping from dandelion to dandelion in my backyard. At one point I tried to capture them in jars so I could study them, but I soon learned how this was not good for them, and gave that up.

And I remember naively forming bird nests from fresh cut grass after my Dad had mowed the lawn, with the hopes that a bird would come and roost. I love the imagination of a child, which sadly as adults we tend to lose.

I was an only child until age 11, when my parents adopted my sister. In those earlier years, playing by myself, I hardly ever felt alone, as my relationship with nature was so strong. It was pure joy to grow up by a lake. I’m grateful for having these experiences as a core part of myself—the oldest part of me—my way of feeling joy.

Has your passion for Walden Pond led you to new networks and interests in the Concord area?

Barbara: Because I enjoyed the wildlife there so much, I developed my calling as a nature photographer over the years. I’m pleased to say that my Walden Pond calendars and cards are sold at retail outlets and historic landmarks in Concord. It’s not surprising that I also grew to appreciate the works of Henry David Thoreau. Four years ago, I became a docent at the Thoreau Farm, and once a month I serve as a tour guide. I meet wonderful people from all around the world who have been inspired by his writings.

Thoreau Farm, Concord, Massachusetts

Barbara Olson photo 4What a beautiful connection with this place you have, Barbara. Walden Pond started out as just a place to go for a swim, and 30 years later, it’s become a core part of who you are. Do you want to add anything about your special relationship to Walden Pond?

Barbara: Yes, I have a story that sums up how I got the message that Walden Pond was the right place for me. It’s one of those synchronistic, or Kismet experiences when you just “get it.” Here it is:

One day, near Valentine’s Day in February, after a snowstorm, I walked to a ridge and took pictures of a glorious sunset glowing over the wide, frozen pond. Later at home, I was curious to see how the pictures of the winter sunset turned out, and I immediately uploaded the photos to my computer. Only then did I notice the enormous large letters etched in the snow blanketing the pond. The letters spelled “I love you.”

I could hardly believe it. Someone with their boots had meticulously carved out these words for their beloved as a Valentine’s Day message—but I sensed that Walden Pond itself was also saying “I love you” back to me!  It was so heartening to see these words sparkling on the snow in the brilliant sunset. It felt like a special Walden Pond Valentine for me!

Barbara Olson photo 5Wow, Barbara, now that’s a sign if there ever was one! I love it when we know in our bones just how precious a place can be, real Heaven on earth. Thank you so much for telling me what Walden Pond means to you. I think I’m going to read Thoreau’s Walden Pond all over again.

Barbara: Thank you for letting me share my stories with you!

Resources for Further Reading

Walden Pond State Reservation

Thoreau Farm: Birthplace of Henry David Thoreau

For More about Barbara Olson’s Photography

2017 Walden Pond/Concord Calendar by Barbara Olson

Greeting cards of Walden Pond and other nature cards by Barbara Olson

valVal Walker, MS, is the author of The Art of Comforting:  What to Say and Do for People in Distress(Penguin, 2010), and a Nautilus Book Award Gold Medalist in 2011. The Art of Comforting was listed as recommended reading by the Boston Public Health Commission’s Guide for Survivors of the Marathon Bombing. Val’s articles have appeared in Whole Living Magazine, AARP Bulletin, Coping with Cancer Magazine, and other national publications. Formerly a rehabilitation counselor, she now works as an activities specialist leading groups for seniors with Alzheimer’s, and other groups with disabilities. To learn more about Val you can visit her website, The Art of Comforting.

The Gift of Comforting

The Gift of Comforting by Val Walker – For many of us, giving comfort to others is easier than receiving comfort for ourselves. The following is my own story of receiving comfort from an old friend, a life-changing experience for me, which inspired my book, The Art of Comforting. Here is an excerpt from the introduction, about a visit from my friend, Morna.

IN THE FIRST BLEAK MONTHS after my divorce, I returned to my home state of Virginia after five years of following my husband’s career moves to Minnesota and New Jersey. Heartbroken and homesick, traveling with my faithful, adaptable cat, Ivan, I imagined my homecoming would be wonderful and warm, surrounded by welcoming old friends, family, and colleagues.

To my surprise and dismay, people were disappointingly unforthcoming. I was not automatically invited to parties, dinners, reunions, and gatherings. I could hardly get folks to commit to a cup of coffee or to stop over to my modest apartment for a pasta salad. So busy with their own families, jobs, problems, and responsibilities, it seemed no one could squeeze me in for some “quality” time.

But I was offered plenty of advice, platitudes, opinions, and cheer about how to move forward with my new life. “You’re better off without him.” “You need to find a singles support group.” “Living well is the best revenge.” My Christian friends told me to pray more, and my New Age friends chided me to meditate more. I should practice yoga, read self-help books, open up a savings account, travel, take flute lessons, stop seeking approval from others, tap into my playful inner child.

When offered these tips to get over my grief, as if just being handed a brochure about my condition by a hurried doctor, I felt pushed away. Did anyone, besides a therapist or pastor, have the time, let alone the patience and interest, to sit down with me, to talk heart-to-heart? But God forbid anyone spot my neediness, or worse, my loneliness! So, for the purpose of maintaining my reputation as a likable, invitation-worthy person, I hid my hunger for comfort from people. I resorted to holding Ivan in my lap at night, with a box of tissues, popcorn, and Animal Planet on TV.

One day, an old friend from Scotland, Morna, phoned and asked if she could come visit me soon. She could take a week off from her psychotherapy practice and “really wanted” to see me. We hadn’t met for years, and I had missed her terribly. I was ecstatic, but had to keep my neediness in check. I invited her to come in October, offering my fold-out sofa bed and free home-cooked food.

When she arrived at my spruced-up apartment, we immediately opened a bottle of sherry and lit candles to celebrate. She gave me gifts, a beautiful green agate stone and a book of poems, and I entertained her with the latest movies, a fun itinerary of sights to see, and a show-and-tell of the pillows I had made for three chairs. We were off to a good start.

My neediness was kept buttoned-down fairly successfully for the next three days. Morna, with her impeccable Scottish manners and brisk humor, seemed quite happy with my fake-it-to-make-it strategy of performing as a gracious hostess. Certainly, after her effort to travel across the ocean to spend her precious time with me, she deserved the best of me and the best views of Virginia, with a drive through the Blue Ridge Mountains and a stroll in the gardens of Monticello. She gently asked how I was coping with being alone, but I assured her I was learning how to keep positive and busy. She offered me opportunities to open up and talk, but I didn’t dare expose my neediness.

Finally, a year’s worth of pent-up grief and despair erupted in my kitchen on Morna’s fourth day with me. Fixing her an omelet and sausages for breakfast, I burned myself and dropped the frying pan full of grease all over the floor. I snapped, threw the spatula against the wall, slammed my fist on the cupboard, kicked sausages across the floor, and yelled a slew of profanities. I crawled down to the floor to wipe up the battered eggs and mess, and collapsed into tears.

“I’m such a loser!” I wailed. “I can’t even fry eggs for you!”

Huddled on my knees, sobbing, I hadn’t noticed Morna had quietly approached me. She sat down on the kitchen floor next to me and softly put her hand on my shoulder.

I glanced at her quickly without making eye contact and said, “Now you see what a basket case I really am.”

“I see someone who is in pain . . . a lot of pain.”

I wept longer, letting her words sink in. She was right. I felt relief just hearing her say the truth out loud.

“Yes, that’s right. I’ve been really, really hurt. I feel so alone. I am so afraid no one wants to be with me anymore.”

Morna made herself more comfortable on the floor, sitting cross-legged. “I don’t mind listening, if you want to talk about this now.”

I remembered she was a professional counselor and blushed. “You sure you aren’t just playing counselor with me? You’re supposed to be getting a break from listening to people in pain all the time.”

She smiled softly, and paused. “I’m your friend. Why do you think I’m sitting here on the floor with you?”

Feeling welcomed to speak from my heart, uncensored, I took the plunge to trust her. The floodgates opened. We sat on the kitchen floor for another hour, until our legs ached, then moved to the sofa and talked nonstop until 3 a.m. In the next day’s story-telling marathon we cried, ranted, laughed, ate chocolates, threw toys for Ivan, and cursed at the lawyers, doctors, creditors, lovers, and in-laws who had screwed us over. By evening, my rip-roaring emotions felt purged well enough to suggest to Morna we go out for sushi.

Still, I soaked up some tears with my napkin over our dinner on our last night together, yet felt completely accepted and at ease.

In my last few minutes with her at the airport, as she was about to step past the gate for her plane, I repeatedly blurted out, “Morna, I can’t thank you enough.”

She paused and put down her suitcase.

I shrugged anxiously, “How can I ever repay you?”

She gave me a long, mighty hug, then looked boldly into my eyes. “You’ve already paid me back. You’ve given me your trust, after all the hurt you’ve been through. You’ve given me more than I ever dreamed of. Thank you.”

Too moved to speak, I barely nodded and hugged her quickly one last time.

I watched her disappear into the crowds to board her plane, still filled with the warmth and tenderness she had bestowed upon me. As an ocean of people passed by me, I made my way through the maze of lobbies and escalators to my car.

Then, in the parking lot of Dulles Airport at rush hour, with roaring planes coming and going overhead, I paused to marvel at a blazing October sunset. Standing under a wild sky bursting with gold and crimson light, I realized I could bear my raw, unruly grief with acceptance and even love.

Though I might never heal completely, as long as I could find comfort with at least one true friend, the beauty of the sky, and one old sweet cat, I was going to be okay.

A Rare Skill

 Morna’s visit provided me with the comfort I had been craving, but it also left me wondering why comforting people were so hard to find. And even if we do find those who are willing and ready, why is it so hard for people to just sit with someone who is suffering without trying to make their pain go away so they can just “get over it”?

Further, I knew that providers around me, including psychotherapists, pastoral counselors, nurses, physicians, yoga instructors, and other healers were not paid to simply comfort people like me in the rawest, most acute stages of grieving. Though knowledgeable and well-trained, and often warm and caring, these professionals were paid to heal people, change people, treat people, and do this as efficiently as possible—to give us their “bang” for our buck. Of course, especially in America, where health care costs consumers so much of their hard-earned money, professionals were trained to fix us as quickly as possible. Not much time for sitting with us while we have a good cry or stare hopelessly at the walls trying to wrap our overwhelmed minds around scary things like our “future,” or our “recovery,” let alone our sky-high pile of bills. Like many people going through difficult times, I wasn’t quite ready for healing yet—I needed comforting first and foremost. And the lack of available comforters made my grief twice as painful.

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, fix me, bill me, instruct me, save me, or heal me. She wasn’t trying to be absolutely unconditionally loving or saintly. She wasn’t even trying to make me smile. 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. Unfazed by all this mess, she sat there and held it all together with her mere presence.

Presence. Unshakable, steady, tender, and empathic presence. Soft strength. That was comfort. That was Morna’s gift to me.

Think about what a cast or a brace does for a broken arm or leg. They hold the broken part of our body in place until that part can get strong and grow back again. They support and hold us together until we can stand up, or walk, or run again. A comforter’s embrace does the same thing, holding us together when we feel broken. A comforter doesn’t need anything from us, not even for us to heal or get better or get well. Something about Morna’s peaceful and gentle acceptance of my vulnerability gave me the chance to embrace the fractured, shadow parts of myself. She saw the good, the bad, and the hidden parts of me. Then, with nothing to hide, nothing to cover up or make up, I said nothing and she said nothing. This nothing moment of sitting on the kitchen floor in the mess changed my life.

valThis excerpt from The Art of Comforting was reprinted with permission by Val Walker, MS, the author of The Art of Comforting:  What to Say and Do for People in Distress(Penguin, 2010), and a Nautilus Book Award Gold Medalist in 2011. The Art of Comforting was listed as recommended reading by the Boston Public Health Commission’s Guide for Survivors of the Marathon Bombing. Val’s articles have appeared in Whole Living Magazine, AARP Bulletin, Coping with Cancer Magazine, and other national publications. Formerly a rehabilitation counselor, she now works as an activities specialist leading groups for seniors with Alzheimer’s, and other groups with disabilities. To learn more about Val you can visit her website, The Art of Comforting.