How to Be Better at Being There

Comfort can be so easy it’s hard.


You can’t cheer up a fresh widow. My roommate tried, and dragged me along to help. Her friend was passing through on some aimless road trip, sparked by the loss of her husband in a car accident, just a few months after their wedding. Nobody knew what to do with her.

Turns out, that was the whole problem.

Everyone was trying to do something, because they hated to see a 22-year-old with an actual reason to feel sad.

They felt obligated to do something for her, with her, or about her. Nobody would just be there. It’s easy to forget the shockingly literal meaning behind that phrase. We expect some greater meaning. Nope, you actually have to sit there and listen. Even if they’re not saying anything.

My roommate didn’t quite understand. She showed up at the bar that night, armed with aphorisms and inspirational poetry. Emily Dickinson. Sylvia Plath. Walt Whitman. Edgar Allen Poe. John Donne. And a bunch of extra poems she’d found on the Internet.

Sometimes being there is boring. It’s not supposed to be exciting or meaningful for you.

This is how English majors comfort each other in times of tragedy.

It didn’t work.

Our widow friend sat there for a while. After the first drink, and the seventh poem, she cut my roommate off. “Can we actually just talk?”

“About what, though?”

“My trip?”

So we talked about her road trip. Little landmarks she’d visited. The Grand Canyon. The time her car broke down. A cute dog she’d seen at a rest stop. Her brother. The weather. The news. Anything.

You could tell this wasn’t what my roommate had in mind, but the night turned out better than expected.

There was no dramatic hug. No cinematic moment. Just drinks. Because my new widow friend was trying to get back to a normal life. She didn’t want a scene, just a casual visit.

Being there isn’t about feeling important, or proving something to the other person.

My roommate confessed to me on the walk back to our apartment. “That went well,” she said. “I’m glad I got a chance to help her. I felt so bad about missing the funeral.” Ahhh, now everything made sense.

That night wasn’t about her friend. It was about her, even though she had a good reason to miss the funeral.

They lived far apart now, and MFA students can’t exactly drop a thousand dollars on airfare and cancel a week of classes to attend the funeral of a college friend’s husband.

What’s my point? Not to criticize my roommate. She was just trying to do what lots of us struggle with — being there.

If it ever came naturally, we’ve forgotten.

My mom’s death gave me a special window on all the ways people try to be there. It’s almost laughable.

Okay, not almost. It’s hilarious.

Some people want to be there so badly, they screw it up. They try to break you again, so they can be the one who fixes you. They crave a moment.

A month after the funeral, people would still come up to me and give condolences. Especially people who hadn’t sent them over email or Facebook. They would stop me outside my class.

“I’m so sorry about your mom,” they’d say, and then go “Oh, I guess that’s not a good thing to talk about right before you have to teach.”

A week later, someone did it to me before I was supposed to give a conference presentation to a room of about 150 people. “You must be so heartbroken,” a random acquaintance said outside the lecture hall. “I hope you’re okay. Can’t wait for your talk.” So he knew I was about imagine him in his underwear, but thought it would be appropriate to mention my mom’s recent death right beforehand. Very cool.

On top of that, he stopped and waited for me to get emotional. I didn’t, and it confused him.

“Are you going to be okay?” he finally said.

“Uh, yeah. I think so.”

It’s a good thing I didn’t miss my mom.

Some people have told me random whiffs of memories can make them break down, weeks and months later.

So screw that guy for saying something that would’ve made a normal person crack into sobs before a big speaking event. It was almost like he wanted me to, so he could be the one to comfort an academic who was “having a hard time.” He wanted there to be a moment.

Being there doesn’t add meaning to your life. Only bragging about it does.

Lots of people assume if you can be there for someone, it adds meaning to your own life. It doesn’t. Not directly.

Providing comfort makes the comforter feel good. Some people want to be the comforter so bad, they forget what the other person wants — which might not involve comfort at all.

They’re so eager to be there, they actually suck at it. They care more about the condolences than their meaning.

Luckily, I’m especially bad at providing comfort. So I’ve had to figure out other ways of being there. This has come in handy. You’d be surprised how often “being there” doesn’t require hugs or pep talks.

My spouse gets bad news every so often. Or he just feels down. Like everyone else, he needs someone to be there. Not sex. Not cuddling. Just someone in the room. The hard part is how easy it is.

At first, I struggled. Our first tendency is to want to fix the problem. We want them to stop acting sad. So we try the pep talk. Or we try to get them to talk about their feelings. Yuck.

Not every problem is solved by talking about your feelings, or doing something fun. A lot of times, you just have to row through a thick stream of nasty emotions.

I’ve learned that the best thing for me to do is what they want. Does he want Netflix and pizza? We do that. A quiet walk? Okay. Or maybe just some time alone while I take his car for a wash.

Whatever he needs, it’s not for my edification and entertainment. Being there for him isn’t about the meaning it adds to my life.

Millions of us pretend to let someone else cheer us up, so they’ll stop trying. It’s like faking an emotional orgasm. You just want them to leave you alone.

Life’s problems aren’t solved by sexy lingerie and a striptease. Sure, a good deal of the time — but not always. Been there. My fiance always wanted to cheer me up. Sometimes with sex. When that didn’t work, he made it about him. Didn’t I find him attractive?

So when I was down, I pretended to let him cheer me up. The worst part is I’m not the only one. Millions of us pretend to let someone else cheer us up, so they’ll stop trying. It’s like faking an emotional orgasm.

The hardest part of being there lies in accepting the passive role. We hear so much about taking action and ownership. Most of the time, that’s true. Not always. In some cases, you can help someone by literally just sitting on your ass and waiting for their signal.