The gift of presence

As a hospice volunteer, it is common to hear from others, “what difficult work, how do you manage?” Or “how sad it must be”. Patient’s families, say “thank you, it takes a special person to do this kind of work”. What’s amazing is that it’s really not so extraordinary and, rather than saddening, there’s something uplifting about it. There’s beauty in sharing gratitude, generosity, love and compassion with others at any stage of life. Really, it just takes being present for another person, being present for sadness, for whatever is being experienced.

I think this is also one of the reasons there’s such enormous value in sitting together in community, in silence. As we sit together confronting the complex network of feelings, emotions, and thoughts, all sorts of difficult emotions emerge; and to be together in that process of life unfolding is extremely powerful.

This week I sat with an old friend, whom I hadn’t seen in 12 years, in a Japanese garden that had deep significance for each of us in different ways.  After some dialogue, a pregnant silence emerged. The heat was oppressive, sweat dripped down my chest. The body was uncomfortable. There was an awkwardness and then a settling in to being together in that new way. Yesterday I spent my last hours with a patient, knowing I would not see him again. His wife, full of nervous energy, not yet opening to her grief, felt it too difficult to stay – so unused to being with him without words.

(Photo: John Moore/Getty.) via The Atlantic | The Daily Dish

Being in silence together is one of the greatest gifts we can give another human being.

I offer this story, I do not know who to attribute it to other than a hospice volunteer.

“If You Do Not Understand My Silence, You Will Not Understand My Words”

Alice opened the door and led me into her comfortable living room. She did not turn on a lamp to scatter the dusk, nor did she offer coffee. We sat down in opposite chairs. I was already thinking of comforting phrases, but I began by asking what I could do to help. She told me, “I’d just like you to quietly sit here. Be with me, not talking or anything, just be here.” I was a little deflated, having marshaled a string of uplifting phrases to help her through her sadness. “What? Sit here? Anyone could do that.”

Alice closed her eyes and rocked gently in her chair. I watcher her for a few minutes. Then, embarrassed by staring into a face that seemed so private, I began looking around the room at the paintings, the polished furniture, the ornate rug. I felt tense and uncomfortable in the heavy silence.

Alice continued to rock gently, her head against the back of the chair, her eyes closed. I gazed out the window where the brightly colored flowers paled, subdued by soft twilight. I shifted in my chair, feeling increasingly awkward in the enveloping silence. I wanted to reassure her that I understood her pain; I wanted to reaffirm her courage and strength; I wanted to dissipate this silence with a shower of words.

Still she rocked, eyes closed. And then, in the soft shadows, I began to let go of my own anxiety, surrendering to the silence which settled over us like a benign mist. My proud preoccupation with my own eagerness to talk ebbed as I slowly began to connect with Alice’s needs. As I relaxed, began to feel at one with her, began to understand the immensity of what I’d been asked to give her: MY PRESENCE. No lecture, no pep talk, no insightful platitudes, no recital of understanding. Just my presence.

Calmness filled the darkening room as we sat together in silence. It was an hour, although it did not seem that long, before Alice operned her eyes and said simply, “Thank you for coming, I’m all right now.”

I smiled, rose, took her hands into mine and said, “I’ll call you tomorrow.” It was only later that I realized the powerful communication in that silence and the closeness that I’d felt to her sorrow. I reflected on how often I had rushed in with words, fearful that if I did not fill the empty air with them I would not give proper comfort. I don’t know what Alice was thinking in that hour we sat together, nor is it important that I know. Whatever her thoughts or prayers or memories, I did not interrupt or violate them, or cut them short with my own imposition of talk. For I realized that unless I could understand her silence, I would never understand her words.

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16 Comments

  1. hi, I’ve just stumbled across your blog today – nice place. and thankyou for sharing that beautiful story.
    that’s twice today i’ve been reminded about presence :)

    Reply
  2. EBE

     /  August 16, 2010

    This post made me thinking. A mixure of thoughts and feelings, most of them were hindrances- anger and fear. I must admit that on one hand, I like to be silent; however, sometimes I feel an urge to talk, usualy because I feel lonely and fearful- are “they” going to like me?

    These roots are deep and usualy take some time to abndon.
    Thanks for the post and for the opportunity to think about the issue.

    EBE

    Reply
    • Silence is something we are not used to, either alone or in company. One of the reasons meditation is such good practice, is that it enables us to see how deeply entrenched the habit of wanting to entertain the mind is, of not wanting to look at the mental defilements – the difficult emotions.

      can’t even tell you how startling it was to witness the chatter in the mind in a “talking” meditation center – where we were predominantly operating in silence, but we were also able to socialize. Knowing the best thing for me at that time was to remain silent and by myself, I would walk by others in conversation, intentionally avoiding eye contact so they would not engage me – and in the mind it was like I was in junior high school again. Stories about “they must think I’m unfriendly”, “they must not like me”…It is so human to experience and feel these things. Whether someone is sick, grieving, dying, healthy – it doesn’t matter – it is an amazing thing to be able to be silent together. Indeed, these roots are deep.

      Reply
  3. Beautiful, as usual, Katherine.

    One of my biggest surprise, crossing the door leading to the ward at Zen Hospice, has been how difficult it is to shift from habitual, doing mode to just being present. We have been conditioned to equate caring with busyness, and doing things for the other person. In that sense, being there for the dying is akin to sitting meditation. Practicing being in the moment, with all of its reality, both pleasant, and unpleasant.

    Thank you for sharing.

    with much metta,

    marguerite

    Reply
    • Thank you for the kind words. It’s a privilege really, the work that we do. There’s so much we can learn by being present with death and dying, both in relating to those departing this world and those who are left behind. That space, that relationship — it’s a real mirror. And connecting it back again to meditation practice and sangha, whenever I come back from silent retreat I feel a longing for the pure attention, the awareness that being together in silence allows. There’s nothing quite like it.

      Reply
  4. Thank you for this beautiful post and site! I am so happy to have found it!

    I really like your writing and the story you shared about silence. Are you familiar with Joel S. Goldsmith? His book ‘The Art of Spiritual Healing’ is wonderful. In it, he talks about sitting in silence with the sick. That is the most powerful, and really the only thing we can offer each other because we cannot know what needs to happen for anyone, healing, more illness, death…

    I am a bodyworker, and a Zen practitioner, and I am very grateful to be provided the spaces to be in silence with other people. There is a deep connection to/in being that we can feel when we are quiet….

    Which reminds me of your profile, in which you mention the dilemma of writing about your life, when there is ultimately no ‘you’… (forgive my paraphrasing) I can really relate to that struggle. It has taken me a long time to recognize the usefulness of talking about my own life :)

    Thank you for what you are doing here.

    Reply
    • Aly, thanks so much for your comment and recommendation. Happy to connect. I’m not sure if you intended to link to the Atul Gawande piece that ran in The New Yorker recently, but that was very powerful. However, as one commenter I saw somewhere said: his discussion is plainly missing the spiritual component of end-of-life care. Some organizations that might interest you include: Zen Hospice, NY Zen Center for Contemplative Care, Metta Institute, and the site of two fellow bloggers who work in this area: http://kissing.wordpress.com/ and http://minddeep.blogspot.com .

      I do think the storytelling component is a tricky one. We can get very identified with it, and of course blogging has lots of ego trappings in and of itself. Intention is really important with this, as with any part of the spiritual practice.

      Reply
  5. an interesting article about Hospice medical care

    Reply
    • Yes, that is the article I meant to link to!! oops. Thank you for your response and I am looking up the links you recommended. Thanks again! I look forward to more conversation :)

      Reply
  6. sarah

     /  September 12, 2010

    A person I esteem recently shared this thought, a piece of advice he received while being a chaplain at a children’s hospital: “Don’t just do something. Stand there.”
    To this and to your post, I say, “Exactly. And how wonderful a gift.”

    Reply
  7. beautiful story. thank you

    Reply
  8. Wow. What a great article. I work as a hospice volunteer coordinator and I am sharing your article with my hospice volunteers.

    Reply
  1. We are the not-so-happy ones « Peace Ground Zero

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