July 13, 2011 // Uncategorized

The courage to bear witness

As the anniversary of my nephew’s death approaches, I am immersed in vivid memories of not only the poignancy of his life, but also the tragic gift of his death. Sitting with a dying loved one is not an easy task, but offers its own treasure. Being present for the long term to those left to mourn their loss can be even more difficult.

Adam was only 22 years old when he drew his final breath on earth after battling leukemia for over two years. When it became clear that his prognosis was bleak, he shared his greatest fear — that he would die alone. His exhausted, but ever courageous mother assured him that he would be surrounded by his loved ones when the time came.

As Adam’s life force began to dim, his heartbroken parents put a call out to his family and friends with a solemn invitation to say farewell. His visitors came over the course of 18 hours, his mother waking him for each goodbye. One by one these caring and courageous folks stood at his bedside to speak sentiments of the heart to him as he lay dying.

Surrounding him with the very presence of love, young and old stood witness to this young man’s last moments on earth. It wasn’t easy, as the stark reality of the situation blended into a surreal blur of exhaustion and grief — a number of us stood vigil with his parents and brother. Others could not bring themselves to stay long in the heartbreak. Nonetheless, Adam knew he was not alone.

Following his death, those of us who remained began slowly to speak of our relationships with Adam and how he had touched our lives. We listened while his parents spoke of their beloved son through tears and laughter. Supporting Adam’s family and bearing witness to their grief, while facing our own sense of loss, was yet another difficult task.

I believe it takes courage to stay with those who face the agonizing pain of loss. It calls for the desire to be present to the ones in need and the stamina to face the discomfort of experiencing the expression of another’s pain.

In our mourning-avoidant culture, where death is many times quietly ignored and mourning is hastened to an unresolved end, those who mourn sometimes feel pressured to hurry through their grief. Sage advice is often offered on how to forget or move on. Bearing witness calls us to hold up each story with honor and be present to the pain. Supporting the bereaved means allowing them space to grieve as they must. They will direct us on what they need.

Many of us have the mistaken impression that to be of any help we must have all the right answers or the perfect actions of comfort. Surprisingly, what I’ve learned through my own experience is that the main ingredient to bearing witness is simply offering one’s openhearted presence. Listening with both ears and our hearts, rather than focusing on what we might say, goes a long way in the healing process.

That openheartedness sometimes means stepping out of our comfort zone. It means allowing the mourner to do and say what is appropriate for them at the time — without judgment. Our presence at the bedside of a dying loved one or at the side of the bereaved need simply be a gentle, quiet reminder of love and support.

After most of Adam’s family and friends had left his bedside the morning of his death, I watched as my sister and brother-in-law sat silently with their precious son’s lifeless body. The pain and anguish reflected on their weary faces spoke volumes. When I began to take my leave, my sister asked if I would stay — to simply bear witness. So I sat with them as they whispered their last goodbyes. The grief was palpable but I felt honored to be a part of this family’s journey.

In the five years since that day, my sister and I have supported each other through many other losses. We’ve sat vigil at dying loved ones’ bedsides, as well as marked each other’s passage through grief. Our healing has come, in part, through our shared witness.

As witnesses we listen, reflect, share memories, laugh and cry. We will sit in silence with our bereaved loved ones, hold them and then we will let them go. We know that to bear witness doesn’t mean that we can fix their broken hearts, but we can offer understanding and hope as we walk with them on their journey of grief.

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