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20th February 2006

The nature of comfort…

posted in Uncategorized |

I’m trying to avoid going to bed for just a while longer, so that I might sleep all night long, so hence another post. I think having a computer connection and being back to my lovely Flower iMac has made me a posting fiend. πŸ™‚ Four whole posts in one day! I’m insane!

I’ve been rather introspective due to everything that has been happening. As first year medical students, we took a class called “Physical Diagnosis” (it’s the class that I helped teach this past December), where you learn to do a physical exam, but more importantly, you learn how to conduct an interview and how to talk to patients (which really uses different communication skills than just carrying on between two friends or acquaintances). One of the first lessons was how important physical touch and sympathy were to establishing the rapport and caring between the patient and doctor–that illness affects us all and to be able to show concern is the best way to develop the relationship. At the end of the week, we had to perform an interview with standardized patient. I still remember the patient I had — an older woman, coming in to get some sleeping pills, where I discovered that her husband had died only a few weeks previously. I remember sitting there, trying to think of something to say, wondering how you could comfort somebody with such an acute loss, and feeling like an absolute failure.

I’m not sure that it has gotten easier since then. I’ve gotten better at placing my hand on a knee, leaning forward, holding patients’ hands after they found out that they might have cancer or some other horrible diagnosis, but the right words to say still seem to stick in my mouth. “I’m sorry” seems trite (and half the time followed up with “it’s not your fault”, which aggravates me to the point of grinding teeth.) At least the sympathy, which felt so fake during the first year (oh yeah, they were ACTORS. It was fake), is real and sincere now, and I care very deeply about my patients and all of their problems, but it doesn’t change that uncomfortable feeling of intruding.

I think I’m worse with my friends. That’s not to say that I’m a fairweather friend who disappears with the first sign of trouble, but that I feel like an absolute idiot in trying to comfort. It’s strange too; everybody seems to know how to comfort me, but that might be because I’m pretty simple that way–hug me tight, let me cry and rant, and I’m good to go. Honestly, I think this is the one area where having a male friend is more difficult, because I communicate my sympathies and pain at their heartache through touch, and Chris is not a touchy kind of guy.

I’ve been trying to be the best friend I can be through all of this, but it’s been hard. I distracted him with two hours of looking at pictures (“Lions. And more lions. And look, another picture of lions.”) and discussion of his trip to Thailand and our trip to Mexico (!!! – I was worried when I suggested tagging along, but he seems as excited by the idea as I am. And it will be our last time together for who knows how long.), but the conversation still seemed to wind back to the unmentionable, and I felt so lost as to what to say. I feel so much for him, but I can never find the words for it.

So a question… what are some of the best methods/words that you’ve found to comfort a friend? And in times of personal loss, what are some things that others have done/said that have made things if not better, then tolerable? I know that some of you have gone through incredibly hard times, and I’d really love some advice on how to be a better sympathizer and friend.

This entry was posted on Monday, February 20th, 2006 at 11:45 pm and is filed under Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.


  • I’m really not good with comforting people. With most people I won’t even try because it always feels like I’m prying and that it’s got nothing to do with me. With the people close to me … I never have the words. Luckily by now they know me and they also know that I’m there for them, even if it’s just to give a hug and to listen and then to distract them with pretty boys for a while. If BFF, especially, is hurt or upset I end up feeling so helpless because there’s nothing concrete that I can do to make it better.

    I think a lot of how I deal (or not deal) with other people’s grief, is because of the way I deal with it myself. I internalise everything (and I know that’s not the best way to go about it, but that’s how I cope) and everyone should just leave me alone. I’ll talk when I’m good and ready – don’t push me.

    I can only imagine how hard it must be for you with what happened to Chris.


    • I also do the “pretty boy distraction” thing. I figure it’s because *I’m* easily cheered up by Teh Pretteh, so I figure everyone else will be too.

      And I’m also bad at dealing with grieving people. I’m not a touchy kind of person, so I resort to awkward pats.

      Sometimes just being quiet and letting the person grieve is the best way, though.

      • admin says:

        Ah, yes, the awkward pats. I’m very good at those.

        I’m such a doctor at heart–I want to rush in and fix things, or at least start the process to cure. I really must remember to step back and let the grieving process happen as well.

        And I don’t think there could ever be too much Teh Pretteh distraction–it’s the kind of cure that everybody could use!

    • admin says:

      *hugs back*

      Thanks, Ellie.

      It’s really hard knowing what to say to people in times of grief. I haven’t quite figured out why (although I think a bit of it is as you said, giving space). I’ve given him space these past few days, mostly because he’s busy with tests, but even so, I’m not sure if that’s the right thing to do, if I should be more forward and pushy. It’s all so hard sometimes.

  • I’m really bad at comforting people; I feel really awkward, and never know what to say beyond a “Sorry to hear that.”

  • You said, “…is real and sincere now, and I care very deeply about my patients and all of their problems, but it doesn’t change that uncomfortable feeling of intruding.”

    When sympathizing with a patient, you are not intruding. I wish that the doctors I’ve been to in the last few years felt something towards me more than a body and something going on (my hair). The first 3 were dismissive and immediately said it was stress, without asking me any questions. My reg. doctor doesn’t believe me when I say it’s getting worse. I’ve been to 2 dermatologists in the last 6 months and the male one, like the others, not only did not listen to me when I said it was getting worse but told me to seek therapy (again, without asking any questions).

    My mom saw her doc at UCLA a few weeks ago and told him about me. He suggested it might be dif. reasons and recommended a female dermatologist over there. She was not dismissive of my condition, and ordered a full blood test, but she said something which is to a certain degree much worse than what the other doctors had told me. I started to cry, and told her this was the worst thing to have ever happened to me. I ‘felt’ her immediately shut off from me and she said instantly, “That’s a separate issue.” No, it’s not. If I were physically dying (which I feel like I am, to a certain degree), would she have said the same thing? I realize that she’s treating my condition but my emotional state is directly connected to my condition, and she dismissed that. Sooo…the male doctors dismissed my condition, and the female doctor dismissed my emotional state. If she had simply said, “I’ll do my best to find out what’s going on,” it would have been so much better than what she actually said.

    I don’t know what I’ve gotten out of this. I’ve either learned how to feel, or not to feel. I think that doctors are often like teachers—some teachers, too, simply ‘turn off’ the students, when the students need so much more than that.

    That was a long post, but you asked about sympathy, and I wanted to share the lack of it I’ve experienced.


    • The two words “I understand” are words I’ve said before, and they are short, simple..and tell the listener that you *are* listening, and care.

      • admin says:

        I always have problems saying “I understand”, because, really do I? Do I really understand what they are going through, having never experienced their lives or reactions or emotions. What might seem like a travesty to me might have been only a minor annoyance to them–and vice versa.

    • admin says:


      I’m so sorry that you’ve had to go through all of this.

      I think in some ways it’s easier to be a medical student. Because we are slower, we’re not the one with the schedule of patients that have to be seen that day or else you don’t get paid, and we ask all of the questions. We have the time. I’ve heard interns say that that’s the hardest things about intern year is the fact that they no longer have time to really get to know their patients. And there are definitely those who are better at the empathizing than others.

      Thank you so much for sharing that with me.

  • GOD, I love that icon. God. Love. I love it.

    I wish I had something to say about comforting friends, but I often find myself in the same position as you, caring so much, but not knowing what to say or what to do. I’ve found it especially hard when you cannot touch the person (as you mentioned) — when they’re talking to you through a computer. It seems like there’s never anything I can do. I wish I could help us both, but I am just puzzled. It’s a very difficult puzzle to solve.

  • Forgive me for jumping in here, but I wanted to see who you are, and now I can only say that you are a very lovely person, too. And I hope that you are feeling good today!

    Anyway, your question: Hmmm… that’s a difficult question.

    I have often felt inadequate at giving comfort to friends and family. If you hear about say, the death of a friend’s mother on the phone, what can you say? Or if someone tells you that he has cancer…

    I think several aspects are important.

    The first is time. You need to have time for your friend or patient to sort of “open up” for you to comfort them. I think as a doctor you will often be hard put to have that kind of time (or at least that’s what my doctor friends often say).

    And then… I often feel that people don’t ask enough. “How are you?” – but they don’t really expect an answer. Or at least not an honest answer. As a doctor in such a special situation, that’s of course a stupid question to ask (how are you, how are you feeling… I mean, I guess that’s what they are with you in the first place). But maybe, ask them what they are thinking about?

    I think it’s important to offer someone who is in a situation where he/she may need my comfort a chance to talk. Not everyone wants to be comforted in the same way, as you said, some people need an embrace. Others may need some practical advice to steady them. Others may simply need someone to sit with them and be silent for ten minutes.

    I think giving someone time is a good way of comforting. And the person who gets the comfort can decide how to spend that time. πŸ™‚

    Another thought… I’m assuming that the class you mentioned was given by doctors and maybe psychologists? Have you talked or thought talking about the problem of giving comfort with a priest? Regardless of your own beliefs, a priest cannot “fix” the physical/psyhcological problems, so they have to deal with that in a different way. Just an idea. πŸ™‚

    • admin says:

      You are most welcome to join in at anytime! I always feel slightly ridiculous when I respond to someone’s really old entry. I don’t know why, because I love it when people do that to me!

      Thank you so much for this, this was exactly the type of insight that I needed.

      The time issue is definitely important. It’s going to be difficult next year, when I have several patients at a tie that I’ll be responisble for to make sure that I have the time/patience to address their needs and worries. I’ve done pretty good as a medical student, because in a lot of ways that’s my specific job, but I don’t want to lose that.

      I had not thought about talking to a priest/spiritual advisor about ways that they use when talking to people in grief. Thank you for that wonderful advice. I shall definitely do so.

      • It’s wonderful to see how much you care.

        I recognize this attitude from my doctor friends, and I can only admire you for that. I think I don’t know anyone who is as hard-working and *caring* as physicians. And that in a world that’s even (or especially?) in healthcare getting trimmed more and more towards effectiveness and efficiency (not that there’s anything wrong with either of that, but if patients a no longer figure s human beings in the calculation, I think something’s wrong… which, I hasten to add is NOT the fault of the medical personnel!).

        Anyway, thank *you* for that interesting question to ponder. And I’ve friended you back. πŸ˜‰

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