By Marge Knoth, Author, Activity Professional
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Author, Activity Professional
Valley Press Books

Marge Knoth attended Purdue
University and took her activity
director training at Indiana
University and her social
service at Ball State.  She is
the author of ten books for
activity professionals. Her
books have been used as
teaching guides in colleges,
trade schools, and in activity
director courses throughout the
U.S. and Canada. They have
won both national and state
awards from the National
Federation of Press Women
and Women’s Press Club of

Marge has written a monthly
column, "A Letter from Marge"
for Current Activities in Long
Term Care.  She has been
published in Family Circle,
Lady’s Circle, Women’s Circle,
Indianapolis Woman, Christian
Science Monitor, Event,
various Christian and craft
publications, and other
magazines and newspapers.
She wrote a weekly newspaper
column called “Do You
Remember?”, and wrote and
recorded a long-running series
of nostalgic radio
commercials.  Also, she is a
motivational speaker having
traveled the United States and
Canada speaking at many state
and province activity
To Order Books by Marge Knoth
When Comforting, Let Your Words Be Few

By Marge Knoth

As activity professionals, we are so often called upon to offer comfort to someone–a
resident, a staff member, a volunteer, or a family member, to name a few.  I have
comforted many in my years working in a long-term-care facility and in two assisted-
living facilities, but just this week, I found out I was doing it all wrong.

My perfectly fit, well-exercised, normal weight, diet-conscious, husband found himself
facing serious open-heart surgery.  In fact, his heart was about to explode due to a large
aneurysm.  The doctor refused him permission to leave the hospital room  to walk me
to the door because “dissections in the hall create far too much paperwork.”  The
prognosis was not favorable, but the cardiologist said, “You don’t have a choice!”  It was
risky surgery, or sure death.  He explained that it would be necessary to cut out a large
part of the aortic root and replace it with an artificial dacron sleeve.  In addition, it would
be necessary to put in a mechanical aortic valve and possibly a mechanical mitrol valve
as well.  It was not your every day heart by-pass surgery.  Rick (my husband) was told
that the most skilled cardio-thoracic surgeon who did this operation performed only
about six a year.  And there was no time to do much shopping for doctors elsewhere.

So here’s where I learned my lesson about offering comfort.  I was in the waiting room
feeling anxious during the five-hour surgery, not knowing if my sweetheart of over 40
years, at the time, would even make it.  Scary thoughts crossed my mind: Could I be
facing widowhood prematurely and unprepared? Meanwhile, sharing the waiting room
was another family who had a loved one facing heart surgery, my three daughters, who
had traveled far to be there, and many members of Rick’s large family who seemed to
be light-heartedly passing the time with small chit-chat,  jokes, and stories.  I had just
finished talking to my son, Nick, in Italy, who could not make it home in time, and my
already heavy heart felt even more burdened when I learned of a problem he was facing
thousands of miles away.

But no one seemed to notice my pain.  I stood, having too much nervous energy to sit
still and wait.  How could everyone be so carefree at a time like this?  Finally, unable to
hold it in any longer, my heart spilled over to one of my daughters who was not at all
sympathetic to her brother’s situation.  She simply did not understand my heart’s need.  
She lectured me how it was

his problem, and that I shouldn’t be concerned about it.  That was not what I wanted to
hear.  I went back to my thoughts.

A stranger in the room and I briefly struck up a conversation.  As I opened my heart to
share my apprehension, she quickly jumped in trying to reassure me.  “Oh honey, don’t
worry.  My uncle had heart surgery and he is fine.  My mother was here for heart surgery,
and on and on it went.  She was so kind, but I didn’t want to hear about her uncle’s
surgery, or her mother’s, or about anything at all.  My heart was so heavy; I just wanted
to unload it a bit.  She did not understand either.  She tried to show compassion by
talking, by reassuring.  My daughter had tried to show compassion by telling me I
shouldn’t think “that” way, by giving me advice, and by telling me not to be concerned
about what was on my heart.  Neither one understood what I was trying to convey.  Had I
been able to verbalize my need at that moment, it would have said, “Don’t talk.  Don’t
give advice.  Don’t try to console.  Just listen.  Hear what is weighing on my heart.  Hold
my hand.  Listen, but don’t talk.

It was that incident that made me consider how often I had tried to comfort or console
someone in the same way.  I had been so quick to encourage, or to offer advice, or to
say what I thought the person needed to hear.  Oh, how wrong I had been!

I remember Henry, a resident at the nursing home where I worked when I was young
and had just become an activity director.   He had Parkinson’s disease, and though his
mind was clear, he could not communicate with words.  When I would enter his room
each day, he would grab at my hand and say, “da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da”
meanwhile pleading with his eyes for me to understand what he was trying to say.  Oh,
how I wish I could have.  I tried, but I failed.  I would then talk at him, which was all I
knew to do.  It was my hope that through my words, I was properly responding to what
he was trying to communicate.  Then, feeling inadequate to deal with the situation, I
would leave the room quickly, feeling bad for Henry.

Virginia was another resident I struggled with early on in my career.  She had come to
us from the hospital, heavily-medicated, with a feeding tube in her stomach, and her
arms and legs were drawn up rigidly to her body.  I think she had had a stroke, but I don’
t remember for sure.  Anyway, when she tried to talk, all that came out was “ma-ma-ma-
ma-ma-ma-ma-ma-ma.  She could say nothing else.  It was unapparent if she
understood anything the staff was saying to her.  Providing activity was difficult.  I tried
various things, but all I ever got was the same answer, “ma-ma-ma-ma-ma-ma.”  There
again, not understanding what to do, I talked at her.  I tried to comfort and reassure her.  
At the time, I thought I was doing the right thing, but after the experience with my
husband, I know that was not what Virginia needed.

Thank God, Virginia’s story had a happy ending.  Our D.O.N. worked hard at
rehabilitating her, bringing her from stomach feeding to normal eating, and working to
limber up her stiff limbs.  Virginia had an unusually strong determination to walk again.  
She did, and not only that, she talked normally, was up every day, all day, taking part in
most activities.  She was even the bride in a mock wedding we  held.  And when Virginia
was doing so well, I asked her about the time when she was bedfast and could only
say “ma-ma-ma-ma-ma.”  She told me she could hear what we were saying, and she
thought she was speaking correctly.  She did not know her words were mumbled.  

How should I have handled these situations?  I am no psychiatrist, psychologist, or
therapist, but as an activity professional today, I would hope that I would sit by their
bedsides and let them pour out their hearts in their limited vocabulary.  I would utter as
few words as possible.  I would probably say something like “Harry (or Virginia), I may
not be able to understand the words you are saying, but I do feel your pain and your
frustration.  I am here for you.  I really do care.”

Seven years ago my father-in-law died after suffering a long battle with Alzheimer’s
disease.  At one point, he was heard saying, “I don’t understand, and no one will take
the time to listen to me.”  

How often do we not really listen throughout our busy days?  We may be rushing down
the hall to catch a phone call when a resident grabs our sleeve and wants to tell us
something.  Yes, we must take the call, but we can swing back when we are finished
and take a minute to listen with our hearts to uncover their need.  They may just want to
be heard.  I often use this quote: “How do I know what I think until I hear what I have to

Even famous people need to talk out their thoughts and feelings without others giving
advice or counsel.  Dale Carnegie in his classic book, How to Win Friends and
Influence People relates this story about Abraham Lincoln:

It seems the United States was in the midst of the Civil War, and as President, one
subject was weighing heavily on Lincoln’s shoulders.  As a young man, he had first
witnessed slavery, and it troubled him deeply.  Now he had a chance to do something
about it.  He was seriously considering issuing a proclamation that would free all
slaves.  Still, the country was divided on the issue.  Lincoln desperately needed to talk.

Lincoln wrote to an old neighbor and friend in Springfield and invited him to come to
Washington and discuss some problems with him.  He came.  As they sat together,
Lincoln began to pour out his heart on the slavery issue.  He brought forth the
arguments for and against slavery.  He read newspaper articles to his friend and parts
of letters he had received from citizens, some for and some against freeing the slaves.  
After talking and pouring out his heart for hours, he shook hands with his friend and
sent him back to Illinois without ever asking his opinion.  Having shared his heart, he
now knew what he would do.  His friend did not have to say much at all, just be there to

Carnegie also writes that Sigmund Freud was a man who knew how to listen to another’
s heart cry.  One man described Freud’s manner of listening in this way.

“It struck me so forcibly that I shall never forget him.  He had qualities which I had never
seen in any other man.  Never had I seen such concentrated attention.  There was none
of that piercing ‘soul penetrating gaze’ business.  His eyes were mild and genial.  His
voice was low and kind.  His gestures were few.  But the attention he gave me, his
appreciation of what I said, even when I said it badly, was extraordinary.  You have no
idea what it meant to be listened to like that.”  

George Eliot said, “The only true knowledge of our fellow man is that which enables us
to feel with him–which gives us a fine ear for the heart pulses that are beating under the
mere clothes of circumstances and opinions.”

Sure, there are times when a word in season is just what the doctor ordered.  But more
often than not, true understanding and compassion are shown by our presence there,
by offering a sincere listening ear rather than speaking.  We can simply “feel” with
them.  Byron said, “The dew of compassion is a tear.”

Many times a wife may want to talk to her husband, but as men seem to have a need to
“fix” things, they may well miss the fact that she just wanted to unload, to be heard so
she could sort out her own thoughts and feelings.  Children are often frustrated
because they cannot be heard by their parents.  They may say, “My parents don’t
understand me at all.  When I try to talk to them, they brush me off.  They won’t listen
when I try to tell them about my feelings.  Or they tell me what I should be thinking and
feeling and doing.”

Les Giblin in his book, How to Have Confidence and Power in Dealing with People
writes,   “A lot of trouble, misery, and failure happens in our world just because
someone wouldn’t listen.”  He continues, “Keep this bit of advice pasted up on the wall
of your mind: ‘You’ve got to know what people want, what they need, and what they are,
if you are going to deal with them effectively.’  This applies to enemies as well as to
friends.  It applies to children, grown-ups, big shots, and small fry.  And the way to know
what people want, need, and are, is simply to listen to them.”   

So what can we do to be there when others need to share their heavy hearts with us?  
First, we need to realize that it is a privilege for someone to trust us enough to be willing
to share their deepest hurt or concern with us.  Then, we need to make a quick mental
note to seal our lips tight and not to interrupt until the person has said all that he needs
to share.  We need, also, to be deeply interested in what he is saying , even if we don’t
feel it is such a big problem.  We can show empathy by leaning toward the person who
is talking.  And when he has totally finished sharing, if it seems right to speak, repeat
back to him some of the concerns he has expressed without offering our opinion or
advice.   This lets him know you have really heard him.  Gently holding the hand, putting
a hand on the shoulder, or giving a hug, if appropriate, conveys more than words ever
could.  And finally, once again, the most important thing is that we really hear and care.

Thanks to the good Lord, to the best cardio-thoracic surgeon in the country (voted so by
his peers), a team of great cardiologists, and to his former healthy lifestyle, Rick pulled
through the surgery just fine.  He is so happy just to be alive, to enjoy the birds singing,
and the flowers blooming.  And I am ever grateful for his life, but also for the lesson I
learned in that cardiac surgery waiting room.  When someone wants to share his heart,
don’t talk, just listen.  I pray that I will always remember this and truly be a blessing to
anyone in need of a listening ear.

Even Darwin had something to say on this subject:   “No radiant pearl which crested
fortune wears; no gem which twinkling hangs from beauty’s ears; not the bright stars
which night’s blue arch adorn; nor rising sun that gilds the vernal morn; shine with such
lustre as the tear that flows down virtue’s manly cheek for others’ woes.”

Just one last thought, “When we help carry someone’s grief, the load is only half as
God bless you all.     Marge.