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,