I can’t remember how long I stood there with my phone fixed to my ear after Sarah had hung up. The silent whirring of book browsing carried on in the library around me, oblivious to the abyss that was about to swallow me whole. I’d just been told a highschool friend had taken her life.
I had to escape. I needed to be somewhere safe. My legs carried me, zombie-like, to my workplace a few blocks away. A bustling cafe where I had forged deep friendships with my workmates, something I cherished being a long way from home. They would know what to do with me.
I walked in and suddenly became self-conscious. I had no idea what to say or do. They would start talking to me but I couldn’t talk. What would I say?
I panicked and left. But the street was no better. I felt vulnerable, raw and exposed. And I could feel the fear and guilt, anguish and pain, sadness, anger, and utter heartbreak welling up inside me with nowhere to go… I needed to be somewhere, somewhere I could just be.
I went back to the cafe and sat outside, slightly out of view but still within the warm, familiar confines of my usually joy-filled home-away-from-home. And it came. The floodgates burst quickly, unleashing a swell of pain that felt like it would surely drown me. I tried to contain it for the sake of those around me. I didn’t want to make them feel uncomfortable. I didn’t want to be noticed, and yet, I also didn’t want to be alone.
And then he arrived. Rob, a workmate I didn’t know so well, with a big glass of coconut water in his hand. He sat next to me, handing me the ice-cold drink and I felt I should say something. But still I had no words, just tears, so many tears. My body shook and he sat with his hand on my back, right behind my heart, and he stayed there. And I wept. And wept. And wept … I never uttered a word and he never asked for an explanation. He just let me be. And somehow, without words, our hearts did all the talking that was needed, silently acknowledging the beauty of our shared humanness.
Many years passed before I told Rob what had prompted that outpouring of grief, and what it meant to me to be held in such presence, such acceptance, without him trying to fix, assure, advise or console me. Just being witnessed as I broke apart, and slowly, very slowly, put myself back together, was powerful beyond measure. I will always remember the potency of that simple, yet profound gesture: unconditional presence.
Some years later, the roles were reversed and I was again reminded of the incredible healing grace of this unspoken language – the language of the human heart.
A colleague had lost her brother to a somewhat common surgical procedure. It had gone fatally wrong and now, suddenly, this close family was left with a great and suffocating hole. Naturally, she took time off work.
Several weeks later as I went about setting up the cafe for opening, I turned around and there she was, walking towards me. Her cap and sunnies did little to hide the pain and brokenness. I could feel it in her spirit and my own. Suddenly, I was sobered by panic. I felt unnervingly ill-prepared…
“Hey Jess” I greeted, not too enthusiastically. Sensitive, I’d hoped.
“Hey. Just here to pick up something.” Her words lacked all conviction.
Should I ignore her loss? Or would it be insensitive to not ask? What would she prefer? Surely I know what to do in these situations?!
“How are you?” I fumbled.
She nodded a little, forcing a corner of her mouth up in what I think she hoped would tell me all I needed to know. She started to tear up. I put my arm around her and walked her to the couch.
We sat. And she wept… “Quick! Say something!” said my mind, “You’ve lost people you love too, you must know what to say! Tell her everything will be alright!”
I opened my mouth to offer glimmers of hope, a happier future, a more peaceful place for him, a healed heart with time… but another thought entered my mind: “Nothing you can say right now will ease her pain.”
I was immediately swept back to that moment, sitting but a few feet away; where Rob had offered me no more than his presence and an open heart. And not only was that enough, it was exactly what my broken heart had unknowingly yearned for.
I realised how uncomfortable I was with Jess, in not knowing how to ‘fix’ her. By clambering for offerings of comfort, whilst pure in intent, I would actually be telling her heavy heart, “Don’t be sad!”
But who was I to say her feelings weren’t valid? So I closed my mouth and put my hand on her back, and I sat. I sat and I listened and I watched as oceans of deep sadness and pain and anger drenched her lap. I sat and I listened and I watched as she let herself fall apart just a little bit more. I hoped that by bearing witness to her rawness, she would instead hear my heart saying, “I see you. I hear you. I feel you. It’s ok to fall apart.”
Fifteen or so minutes later, the tears were subsiding and I felt now was a good time for the coconut water. Just as I went to get it she turned to me, grasping me with her gaze, and she pulled me in for the most fragile, warm, heartfelt embrace, whispering softly in my ear, “Thank you.”
And in that moment, that precious mirrored moment, I knew that was enough.
Both these bitter-sweet experiences had me thinking how different the world might be if holding space for ourselves and others was the norm. Imagine if we were taught this at home and in school. Just how naturally we would reside in presence and loving-kindness for all of life on Earth.
At the very least, I feel immensely grateful that I’ve learned this healing way to be with grief and I can only hope that continuing to hold space for others will leave the same kind of impression that was left on my own heart.
If you feel compelled to practise being more present with those around you, why not try it out for a week or so. This can be as simple as just listening to someone speak without distraction and without interrupting. What do you notice? How does it feel? We would love to hear your experiences in the comments below; they matter and can really make a difference in someone’s day.
Love and presence to you all,
I remember when training to be a bereavement counsellor, and asking what do I do and was told you don’t have to do anything, you just have to be. Holding someone in the therapeutic space is more than enough.
Topic is really excellent.
That is perfection
I have experienced two huge losses in my life, my first and my second husband died suddenly and at a young ages, too soon. The pain, agony and despair is relentless. So when someone is grieving I feel their pain, you cannot say i know how you feel because you really don’t. You just have to acknowledge their pain, let them express it, share it and just “be” there with them in that moment. It is a healing feeling, it might not be much but it is a tremendous relief to share. May we all be there for each other when we need that human connection.
I found this so touching – brought tears to my eyes at its message of simple , loving humanity . It was an excellent reminder of how we need to hold space , to give time and offer love to others in times of deep grief and distress. Silence and being just present can be very healing , especially when coupled with love and compassion . Much love to all out there who are struggling through their devastating grief . Big hugs ❤️
Your two examples say it all…in grief we just need someone present who cares. They don’t need to say anything ….just hold our grief in their silence but warm care and kindness so we don’t feel alone.
Briony a heartfelt thank you for sharing these experiences. Being an Energy Practitioner I’ve seen miracles happen from “holding the space” with silence, intention, and compassion. Well done. Tears were welling up in my eyes when reading your experiences.
While the oceans waves crash onto the land .
I hear the pounding on the door…………… My soul is weeping for it longs to stay.
Branches of the tree`s bend down dripping of water , pushed down by the wind of the storm.
I long for shelter , mind weary shaking body …… How long must I go on.
While tired of the fight bruised and weak,,, I plea for Mercy,,,,,, O please let me back inside.
Warm me with your embrace hold me for it is shelter that I seek.
Beautifully expessed Briony! How quick we are to jump into fixing and finding soutions. It’s not so easy to sit back and be present and hold space. The world is full of unsolicited advice. I will keep practicing! Thanks for such a heartfelt article
I believe what we often fail to understand…both from what’s offered by others in our own time of loss…AND what WE feel inclined to offer those we’d like to comfort…is that it’s all an attempt to “make them feel better”…. so we ourselves will feel better!! Even when it’s sincere and heartfelt, words can become so trite and can even be hurtful….and they are often much like holding up a STOP sign! That’s why saying nothing is so powerful and meaningful! Or even simply saying, “I don’t know what to say.”…as you continue to offer your presence. I’m so glad this article has given such a truthful account of this kind of appropriate support! And yes, what a huge difference it would make if we began early to teach about the changes in life bringing loss…which brings all kinds of feelings to try to cope with and understand as we grieve. And it’s not a question of whether we will grieve or not!! It’s a question of whether we will choose healthy ways to grieve…by allowing those feelings and the pain….instead of unhealthy ways like denying the loss and the feelings and trying to cover the pain. I think the biggest need for choosing heathy grieving is having good support by those who understand and will allow the person the space to hurt and thereby validate their loss and their feelings. That’s exactly what those in this story did!
Hello❤️ This article was moving, tender, and so familiar. I could relate in several ways. I am not much of a talker. I AM A Good Listener. I find myself short or lost for words in life regularly but I am attentive to others and use Eye Contact to show Understanding. These Heart to heart, Deep, Painful and Uncomfortable Situations were handled in such A Rare Unique, Wonderful way. I say the Silent but Powerful Physical Touch Of An Understanding Sympathetic, Empathic Soul Is What the Doctor Ordered. No Words Needed… Pure Comforting Presence of A Kind Genuine Caring Soul is just Right!
Simply beautiful!! Thank you soo much for sharing!!!
Your article reminded me of the night a friend of mine knocked at my door at 1:30 am and enter in tears saying that his boy-friend had left the party with a girl! As we sat together with my arm around his shoulders I felt unable to utter a single word. Later, commenting the fact, he told me: “No need, for I felt your heart was talking to mine”.
thank you for a very moving and very tue article (-:
I’ve been on both sides of this issue too many times to count. I’m 61 and it took a long time for me to understand everyone who needed to be consoled, didn’t need me to “fix” the broken heart…I’m a Maintenance Planner by trade, 27 years on the job…my job is to “fix” thing…I need to learn people…people just need us to love them in their grief. I found this to be a very powerful article.
Thank you team. Tears are in my eyes. Its the only way to connect: just be there. I know and do this. Privat and in my new job as a cabdriver. I love it.
There is a woman, actually a pioneer in the medical field, that also implements some of this type of remedy, or shall I say lack of, for here patients. She is also a great story teller and I believe anyone that will be practicing any type of healing should have to read her books.
Her name is Rachel Naomi Remen and two of her books that I would give six stars out of five to are…
Kitchen Table Wisdom and My Granfather’s Blessings.
Bless you all,
Sometimes we don’t know what we think until we hear what we say. Sometimes, it’s in the quiet when a person appears to have finished speaking that they utter the real gem…they’re able to get right to the issue. “You know what the issue really is…..” but sometimes we can’t get to that realisation if no one can bear witness to the unravelling. Holding presence is perhaps the greatest human skill and gift that we can offer each other.
Thank you for this wonderful article.
As one who lost my 26 year old only sibling to a sudden brain aneurysm, I found this article to be absolutely excellent. There are certainly times when there are no words. The mere presence of a compassionate soul who is willing to sit with us in our sadness is so welcome.
Beautiful, Thank you for sharing this. This “holding space” is our innate wisdom that emerges as we operate from presence not ego. This silent, shared space, beingness, oneness dissolves all barriers and is the power that transforms the world.
What a wonderful article. We all need to be reminded it is not our job to “fix” others on their journey. Thank you.
Nice article. Such a good reminder we don’t need to “say the right thing.” Just be there and understand.
I also had a similar experience after losing my brother to suicide. I did not have anyone in my time of need who was able to hold the space for me, however, upon meeting a girl clearly distressed about a friends loss she was experiencing, I somehow knew what she needed by simply knowing what it was I felt I needed (or didn’t need more to the point) which was no words, just someone to sit with me, listen if I needed to talk and sit with me in silence when I didn’t need to talk.
After sitting with her for what felt like hours, she turned to me, looked into my eyes and said, ‘you have lost somebody too haven’t you?’
I smiled and nodded.
She smiled and said ‘thankyou’
It was a very special moment and I feel happiness in my heart reading your story to remind me of this special moment in time.
Thank you for sharing this story of the healing that comes with presence – or silently ‘being there’. Very powerful medicine.