“We sit silently and watch the world around us. This has taken a lifetime to learn. It seems only the old are able to sit next to one another and not say anything and still feel content. The young, brash and impatient, must always break the silence. It is a waste, for silence is pure. Silence is holy. It draws people together because only those who are comfortable with each other can sit without speaking. This is the great paradox.”
I felt lost within the shadows of my own grief, numb from a loss that seemed unbearable, and yet the quiet presence of my friend who sat beside me offered refuge and comfort in the midst of my isolation. Although the passage of time has eased the pain of that moment, the memory of my friend offering his silent presence in the midst of unspeakable pain still illuminates the darkened pages of that experience. It has been said that silence is golden and what I know about gold is that this most precious of metals is made into it’s purest form when it has been refined… Our presence with another can speak hope and light into the darkness, even when – perhaps especially when – no words are spoken.
Most of us, if we are really honest, have a really hard time being silent. Sometimes we fear that silence is an indication of a lack of social skills. “Will this person think that I am antisocial?,” we worry.. Others of us view silence as unproductive. “I’ve got to say something to comfort them! At least that’s something!” we say to ourselves.
The problem with both of these approaches to silence, is that they really have more to do with us than with the people for whom we are caring When our understandings of silence are rooted in our own anxieties, our interactions with those who are dying become self-serving rather than giving. We become more focused on addressing what’s going on internally with ourselves than internally within those who are hurting around us, and we we do so, people notice.
In our bereavement support groups at Hospice House we spend a lot of time talking with our participants about the helpful and unhelpful things people say and do when they learn that our attendees have experienced a loss. One of the common phrases that those attempting to help the bereaved say is: “he’s in a better place.” Our attendees talk about how they think that people are being helpful in these moments, but how filling the space with these words bypasses the real and raw emotion that they are experiencing in their loss. One woman once said to our group: “I wish people would just say, ‘I’m sorry’ or just be quiet sometimes.”
The more I am exposed to those nearing the end of their lives, the more I realize that the dying process is this constant exchange of intangible gifts that, when anxieties are set aside, can be received in beautiful and surprising ways. Often these gifts are exchanged in quiet company.
Recently I was approached by a woman whose husband had received hospice volunteer support and with whom I had spent time visiting during and after his death As she hugged me she whispered, “Thank you for all you did for me.” My first thought when she said this was: “I haven’t done anything.”
But as I gave her words some thought, it occurred to me that we had both exchanged something in this process… I had given her myself – my time, my attention, my presence. She had given me the invitation into the story that was the journey that she and her partner had made. I had accepted that invitation as I sat with her as she pondered the empty space that would inhabit her life upon her partner’s death. I had allowed her to speak when she needed, and I joined her when there were no words for the grief churning within her. Her words also gifted me with the memory of my own experience with my friend. I recalled the company that I had so deeply longed for and received in that dark moment, and the light that it had brought when I received it.
This gift of presence that we offer to others is very often more about silence than it is about filling those empty spaces with words. Our presence makes a difference. Our willingness to sit in silence offers comfort and acceptance in the midst of pain that has no answer and circumstances that cannot be fixed. The sacred space of shared silence is truly golden, and one of the greatest gifts that we can give to one another.
Hospice House volunteers are defined by this willingness to just be… to listen quietly and embrace the silence when there are no words. Our volunteers offer beautiful and life affirming gifts: A hand held. A comforting presence. A listening ear. Encouraging words. A soothing voice in the midst of silence. A silent presence in the midst of suffering. Respite offered in the chaos of uncertainty. Assurance that even in the lonely places of their journey, those with whom we choose to walk alongside are not alone.
The tangible meets the intangible when we offer the gift of ourselves to others, affirming that there is a commonality in this journey we all share – that all those things that connect us in this human experience called life which are not always easy to quantify and measure have infinite value and longevity beyond the here and now.
~Written by: Debra Podish, Director of Patient & Family Services
~Edited by Hannah Creager, Chaplain