Too often, we expect people to be verbal when they're having a hard time. We expect to be able to see their emotions on their sleeves, so that we know when to save the day with a shoulder to cry on and a listening ear.
For a lot of my life, that theory has worked well. My dad, being the passionate talker that he is, loves that I will let him work through things out loud. Most of my female friends, not to mention my handful of male friends, have reacted the same way.
Then I married someone more like my mom. She's sweet, reserved, practical and very even-keeled. So is my husband. Neither of them are big talkers and they don't generally show when they're upset, unless there's some sort of life-altering disaster. So how do we comfort loved ones like this? These are the people who offer us stability and nonjudgmental input to our problems. How do we help them when they are the ones having a hard time? With some fantastic insights from my husband, I present to you the answer to that question.
Don't assume that "functional" is the same as "fine."
My husband was the only one available to attempt CPR when his grandpa died. Still, he managed to arrive at his first class on time. Some of his high school classmates were astonished or even appalled that he could just show up after what had happened. The real story, however, was that he needed to avoid sitting around being upset about it. That's just how he works. Remember the Thor movie? "Do not mistake my appetite for apathy!" Your loved one may be able to sleep, eat and function in general, but that doesn't mean he or she is not hurting.
A lack of outward distress also means that it's easy to feel the temptation to be flippant about the issue. You might want to joke about it or act like nothing has happened. However, just because you can't see the hurt doesn't mean that your family member is unaffected. So be gentle.
Provide low-level distractions
We all have moments where we wish life would just go on normally even though something terrible has happened. For seemingly impassive people, this is especially important. You can help by providing a little distraction for your suffering loved one. This gets them out of the house and away from their own thoughts. Try offering to watch a season of a great TV show, casually playing a sport with some friends or taking your family member out to dinner. These are all fairly ordinary things that can allow him or her to feel like life goes on. These also don't require a lot of emotional energy, which is something of a hot commodity for your loved one right now.
Express your concern and sympathy
No matter how functional your family member appears and how welcome distractions may be, take a moment to state your love and your awareness of his or her pain. Everyone appreciates that. Stoic, composed people are still people; they still have emotions, even if they are well-contained. Acknowledge that.
My younger brother is another one of those people we've mentioned. He's also going through the hardest thing in his whole life right now, and it's hard for me to be so far away from him. It's been a long time since we could spend time together regularly, but I still love him to pieces. I try to comfort him by texting or calling him every so often just to say "hi" and "I love you" and "I'm thinking about you" and "I'm so sorry; this must be so hard." He doesn't respond with more than a sentence, but according to my husband, this is exactly what I need to be doing to help him get through this.
Not everyone needs a good listener and a box of tissues when they're having a hard time. Some people, like my husband and brother, just need to have their pain acknowledged. They also need things to keep them busy and time to work through what they're feeling. You can be that person, and provide the supportive, quiet presence for them that they have always been for you.