On Being a Witness


Last night was my support group and I didn’t want to go.  I had gone to dinner with friends the night before and was out past my bedtime.  I could feel a sore throat coming on and wasn’t feeling well.  Rather than going and listening to the other parents share their stories about losing their babies, I really wanted to curl up in bed and watch Project Runway.

I told Ger I would take a bath and then decide.  I remembered the Parker Palmer quote I had tripped across only recently:

The human soul doesn’t want to be advised or fixed or saved. It simply wants to be witnessed — to be seen, heard and companioned exactly as it is.

And so last night, I went for one purpose: to be a witness.  To see, hear, and companion the others in the room.

A dear friend of mine recently suffered another loss, the fourth in what must feel like an endless cycle of heartache.  I know, I know… that feeling of searing pain, crying for days, and then shock and numb settle into the muscles with overwhelming fatigue.  That while people may pour out their sympathy by saying “I’m so sorry for your loss” in the from of a text or a hug, but unless they have experienced it themselves, they quickly fall away.  And then silence.

I listened to her talk, for hours.  I tried to offer practicality rather than advice.  Let me be clear: advice is not helpful.  There is an overarching undertone of philosophy involved in advice, implying that if only the griever were to do something differently, the grieving would be over.  “Your loved one is in a better place” or “Everything happens for a reason” or “At least you have other children.”  Nope.  It doesn’t work that way.

Practicality is acknowledgement.  It says “I understand where you are.  Let me meet you where you are, based on what you say you need.

Do you need to talk on the phone, and say everything that you are feeling?  I’m here for you.  If not right now, I will be here later.  If not at all, then that’s ok too and know that I am always willing.

Do you need medication to help you get through this difficult time?  Here is what you can ask your provider.  If medication is not the right answer for you, that’s ok too.

Do you need a support group, to talk to other people who have a shared experience?  Here is one I can recommend.  If not, that’s ok too.

Do you want to talk about what the next steps are, in a pragmatic way?  Let’s talk.  Is it too overwhelming to think about what comes next?  That’s ok too.

Do you need some type of escape from how you are feeling?  Other people I know have found mindless coloring, HGTV, writing, or travel helpful – as some ideas, in case you are not in a space to think of something.  It’s ok to want to escape.  Find what works for you.

Do you feel that you cannot care for your living children?  I promise that is ok and they will be fine, even after a month of nothing but cartoons and pancakes.  You do not need to apologize for feeling sad.

Do you need a casserole, or a coffee date, or someone to watch your living children?  It is so hard to ask – I know – but if you are comfortable, it is ok to vocalize what you need.

Do you need a hug?  I am here.  Not your thing?  I understand that too, and know that mentally I am projecting myself next to you so that you know you are not alone.  Lean into people, when you need it.

I worked for years with my therapist on understanding: What do I need?  How do I communicate what I need?  How am I feeling?

Last night in my support group, I mentioned Ger’s anxiety, and how in dealing with his anxiety, he is facing triggers – much in the same way that I faced triggers several years ago after first losing Nelle.  One of the other parents in the group last night, newer in loss asked “How do you handle the triggers?”

I replied with the same that I told Ger: the triggers never go away.  You will always have triggers.  But you will be able to manage your responses better.  There won’t always be that “first time” you see a baby stroller, or go to a baby shower, or walk past the baby aisle at Target, or are faced with someone saying something stupid.  You can begin to anticipate what will be difficult and how you will respond.  My therapist spent a lot of time asking “What do you have coming up this week?  What do you anticipate will happen?  What can you do for yourself in that moment?”  Practicality.  Not advice.

The response became something I could control.  I faced it enough that while it still happens, it does not shatter me.  Not everyone deserves to see me cry in public – some people do, but not everyone.  I can wait until I am in a safe space to face my own responses.  I can retort to platitudes and insensitive comments more easily.

My response is now my choice.