May 15, 2013 // Uncategorized

The lost art of witnessing another’s pain

It’s never easy to sit with a person who is overcome by the pain of loss. Witnessing another’s sorrow can provoke a heightened sense of our own level of discomfort, causing us to try to “fix it” or perhaps even turn away if we’re not in tune with our own issues. Neither is a comforting proposition for those who mourn.

I remember over a decade ago when a good friend of mine lost her husband suddenly to heart failure. Because her family lived out of state, several of her friends rushed to sit with her in the hospital while she waited for news of her husband’s condition. Following the traumatic news that her husband had died, those same friends sat with her in a quiet room as she prayed over her husband’s body.

Sitting with her in her shock and sorrow took courage and compassion. It took stepping out of their own comfort zone to honor their friend’s immediate needs. And that’s not easy in our culture today, evidenced by what followed for this woman in the ensuing days.

In those days following her husband’s death as she dealt with funeral arrangements, legalities and the sheer exhaustion of sudden loss, more friends came and went from her home, some praying the rosary quietly, ready to help when instructed, others brashly attempting to orchestrate her life “back to normal.”

As I sat praying with the others I watched my friend quite literally running through her home trying to navigate the dark and confusing wilderness of grief she had entered upon her husband’s death. Those supporters who ran with her, offering unsolicited advice and their own stories of loss, seemed to only add to her confusion.

My own experience of loss is similar as I’m sure it is for many others as well. Some well-meaning supporters, uncomfortable with or perhaps ignorant of the natural ebb and flow of grief’s pain and sorrow, profess to know best what we should do and feel. I recall so many telling me stories of their own loss and how it compared to my husband’s death 22 years ago. As well intended as they were I was bewildered with the comparisons and only wished to focus on my own loss at hand.

Though sharing stories empathically is a natural way of reaching out to those in grief, commiserating the details may only diminish the support meant to be shared. I have learned that less is more when it comes to words of sympathy and advice especially in the early days after a loss. Simply acknowledging the difficulty of the situation is enough to ease the tension and allow the bereaved to do what must be done.

There are those whose experience of life has caused a deep-seated sense of urgency to dismiss the pain of grief. Despite the real need to mourn a loss this group believes that there is a quick fix to grief. “Don’t think about it so much,” they’ll say, adding, “You need to get over this.” And “You really should… .” I believe the avoidance of pain at all cost that seems prevalent in today’s culture has created a great need for the reinstitution of the lost the art of sitting with another in his or her pain, acknowledging it and allowing it to transform their lives.

The art of witnessing another’s pain involves a spirit of compassion and acceptance that supersedes one’s own discomfort and need to assert a leading agenda. Unsolicited advice or running conversation can make for a tense and exhausting time. Being present with the mourner in the silence of despair is sometimes just what is needed. Allow them to tell you what they need or feel.

Now, years later, my widowed friend says of those first terrifying days, “I don’t remember much about those first days beyond feeling confused at times because so many people were trying to help with stories of their own loss and advice on how to handle things. Sometimes I didn’t know what I needed and I just wanted it all to stop.” But she holds dear those folks who sat with her in her sorrow and witnessed her pain in their silence. “I do remember that my prayer warriors were there on the sidelines lifting me in prayer, and ready to help if I asked. That made all the difference for me to know they were just there.”

She has learned from her own experience what she will offer to another who has experienced a loved one’s death — a calming, compassionate witness and a quiet willingness to help when directed — and lots of prayer.


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