The other day, another way of looking at "Show; don't tell" occurred to me.
I was sitting in a restaurant with a friend who had recently suffered a loss. I asked her how she was doing and she told me. I listened, but in the back of my mind and then out loud I shared an experience similar to hers. My intention was to let her know that I knew how she felt.
After we went our separate ways, I realized that she probably didn't want to hear me talk about my loss. She wanted to talk about hers. And there were ways to show her that I empathized without butting in on her story.
One way is through body language. I could look her in the eye, nod my head, touch her in a comforting way if I thought she would be comfortable with that. I could ask questions from my deep knowledge of the type of sorrow she was experiencing that would show her that it was safe to talk because she was with someone who had been there. Questions like, "That was hard, wasn't it?" and "It's different when you lose a parent/sibling/spouse when you're old/young, isn't it?"
I could find out what she needs from me and other friends, drawing on what I needed. "Can we bring food, go out to dinner or a movie?" It wouldn't be too much "telling" if I said, "I loved getting cards/calls; do you find that comforting?"
The bottom line is this: who can really understand another's sorrow or illness? If you were to ask the five children in my family to talk about my father's death and what it meant to them, you would get five different stories. You might even wonder if we're all talking about the same person!
Mostly I think that when people are having troubles--and they seem to be more common as I get older--they just want someone to listen. They want to talk about their loved ones months, years even, after they're gone. They want to enjoy the care and attention they felt during an illness when they're feeling better. They want to think that what they feel is important.
I'll end with a wonderful quote on listening that I have on my refrigerator:
"Listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force. The friends who listen to us are the ones we move toward. When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand."
-- Dr. Karl Augustus Menninger