Over the year, I’ve thought quite a bit about the concept of comfort – how we gain comfort in times of sorrow and suffering, how we endeavour to comfort others going through pain and strife, and how we think God gives comfort to His children.

It’s not an easy one to figure out.

My mother is going through pain on many levels at the moment. There’s the actual cancer, and with it, the loss of many freedoms coupled closely with the fear of not knowing what the near future will bring and whether she can be healed. There’s the pain of distance, where many loved ones are on hand to help, but her daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter live in another continent. And there’s physical pain – an unrelenting ebb and flow of sharp and dull pain that keeps her awake and takes over many senses in the worst of times. Where no position feels comfortable and time stretches on like a torture rack.

For someone rather given to wordiness and expression, I find myself in foreign territory – that of not knowing what to say. I know what I don’t want to say. But then there’s an entire spectrum of should-I-shouldn’t-I that gives me a severe case of analysis paralysis. Most things sound lame in my head. Most lines sound so throwaway and careless. So plastic and hollow. Platitudes and clichés, Well-intentioned, heartfelt banalities. On the cerebral, we understand the exchange of them to be a very poor cousin to all the non-verbals we want to express.

Like how we love you so very much, and how we’re so very sorry you’re afflicted in this way. Like how we wish so much that we can take this cup away from you.

Even then, such words are uttered out of helplessness. When we comfort, what we usually, desperately want to achieve is resolution. We want to proffer a solution. We want to fix the hurt. We want to swoop in and play the saviour.

It is the last bit, especially, that turns the act of comforting on its head because it’s so easy to make it about us, instead of making it about the one in pain.

It becomes, “I need to give tangible, practical help.” It becomes, “I need this to go away so that we can all feel better.” It becomes, “Let me show you how clever I am.”

And so it starts. The self-help books. The advice we heard from 2 to 8 degrees of separation. The best-kept secrets for long health and wellness. Eat this, Drink that. Don’t eat this. Don’t drink that. There’s a man in Nantucket with a miracle cure. There’s a woman who was so self-disciplined that she followed this diet to a tee and cured herself of cancer.

Cured herself of cancer?

It might seem to come from a place of love, but the intention is very much focused on the physical – even when we don’t know what we’re talking about. I find myself doing it. I’m here, and I find myself offering “helpful suggestions” because I’ve run out of ideas and I want to fill these pain-filled silences with something practicable and meaningful.

So I suggest things on pain management, because my blessedly short 4-hour labour with Arddun was my last closest experience with agony. Except I still don’t know what I’m talking about, because it’s such a cardboard cut-out version of the relentless, debilitating pain my mother is going through on a per-minute basis.

That’s when the help changes from being edifying to anything but,

In observing others and myself, I’ve found that there can be a tipping point. Where demonstrating concern – only on our terms – achieves the opposite result of very much discouraging and insulting the recipient. Like offering a bandaid to an amputee.

I know that everyone reads love differently, but I’d wager all the money in my pockets with all the money in yours that most of us wouldn’t rank unsolicited advice as the first and chief means of comfort. And yet, even knowing this, all of us are so prone to dishing it out to others as a reflex. I have heard myself spouting a few bits of nonsense every now and then in the 12 hours since I landed, and sometimes I want to smack myself.

But we do it anyway. Perhaps because it gives us something useful to do. Perhaps because it’s an old, bad habit that has never been corrected. Perhaps because it doesn’t require as much emotional engagement as sitting down with someone, holding their hand and fighting back the tears because neither of you can really stop this.

I am at a loss most of the time. But I’m learning how to communicate with my mother again. It sounds bizarre because she is my longest and closest friend, but this sickness has introduced a whole new vocabulary and dynamic to work around. I’m trying to work out how she receives comfort. How she interprets support and love. I’m trying to work out what edifies her, and what doesn’t. In other words, I’m trying to shut up when it don’t help.

Here are a few things I’ve gleaned so far (and again, this isn’t perfect):

  • There is no miracle cure. There is no magic bullet. It’s not about neutralising acids or balancing ying and yang better.To my mother, God is the ultimate healer. No one else.
  • Sometimes, all she needs is a hug and a sincere prayer.
  • She needs sleep. The pain keeps her awake and stops her from eating. It clips her wings and takes away her independence. Pray about that instead.