For most of my life, I have been a woman of action. With barely a mention, I show up to move furniture, make a meal, take a walk, paint a wall. I am comfortable in the kitchen, on the trail, or at bedside, rubbing moisturizer into the scaly, dry skin of an ailing friend or relative. Saved from the discomforting challenge of finding the right words, action is a refuge for me.
Until it’s not an option. Until I’m left to witness grief, fear, tragedy or illness. And there’s nothing that I can do about it. Or with it. I am familiar with the paralysis within that accompanies those feelings. I almost feel less helpless when they are my own. I am off the hook for words of consolation.
Recently I have faced a wave of horrible news, heartbreak and deep worry. Things that weren’t supposed to happen in my sphere are happening. These are situations and events that are out of my hands. The call to action baffles me–because there isn’t one.
Instead, I am required to turn inward and ask myself: what I can do? What does a person in need, need? I am reminded of the power of being present. My father battled cancer for several years, each time becoming infirm and ill for longer, with less of him coming back. While I willingly straightened his bed, helped him up, and got him ice chips, the deeper sense of connection and solace occurred in the silence between us. Me sitting on the shiny green vinyl chair, as close to his bedside as I could get. Him shrinking beneath the rough cotton sheets, dozing and awakening to look over and make sure I was still there. I only quizzed the doctors in the hall. I chatted with the nurses outside of his room. He needed me to show that I trusted the care. I can too easily add to the chaos with my fix-it energy. Only lately do I understand that it comes from my anxiety and contributes to others’.
In the past, I have underestimated the power of a phone call. Technology has made it easy to establish hands-off contact at my own convenience. In times of flaring emotions and an indescribable need for consolation, a live voice attached to a listening ear provides support and a safe space to fall apart – if that’s what would help. Unless asked for input, I am holding back from trying to say something to “make her feel better.”
In a conversation with a sage advisor the futility of the “at least it’s . . . “was pointed out to me. It’s always been an admonishment that has left me feeling ashamed and silenced. While the intention might be to shift the focus, or “look on the bright side,” for many it discounts their feelings when they most need validation. While “it could be worse” might offer a temporary diversion, for many the relief is fleeting, and the reality seems desperate and immediate.
I am reminded of another phrase that comes to mind when we are included in the sharing of a situation or an emotional splurge. “I understand.” Rarely do we truly understand because we cannot be in the other person’s shoes, mind or heart. The sharing of our own experience might create a temporary deflection; however, what is most needed is space to be open and accepted as they are, in this moment.
The most challenging piece of being a confidant or witness, is the sense of impotence. The humble realization that there is nothing I can do to make it go away. To fix it. To cure it. There is a powerful reminder in recovery literature about the conundrum of being close to the pain and suffering, and yet not in the middle of it – you didn’t cause it, you can’t cure it, and you can’t control it. The three C’s take me to the place of examining what I can offer. It’s usually a reach out, quiet and consistent emotional support, availability and sometimes home-made soup. It’s listening more than talking. It’s respecting privacy. It’s being beside without judgment. It’s so very hard to do.
At least, that is my experience.