The Australian, Ruth Ostrow
Many years ago I had an unusual experience. I was singing in a gospel choir and one of the men in the group had lost a child at some point before I joined. Nobody confronted the issue so we just left him be and skirted around the grief as if it wasn’t there.
One day we were doing an exercise where we sung in a circle and made eye contact. It was a very exquisite version of a Hallelujah. He was just opposite me. And while I was going higher and higher our eyes locked. I was caught there, unable to look away. It felt like he was singing right into my soul. Suddenly, as if by some sort of magical transmission, I felt the pain of his loss.
It went down into me, and tears started rolling from my eyes. He was tearing up too as we shared an intense moment of connectedness. In that moment, I was able to offer my empathy. It was a profound and spiritual experience that has stayed with me forever. Later he talked openly to me about his loss.
It brings up a question many of us have to deal with: how do we support a person — be it friend, family or colleague — going through great suffering? So many people I know are helping friends who’ve been diagnosed with various diseases, mainly cancer. Some are nursing people already in the dying process. Then there are those trying to be present for people in grief over untimely losses, such as the death of a child or partner.
How does one care not just for the body but for the soul of another? Sitting with someone having chemotherapy is a loving act but what words are to be spoken, and of what type? Comforting? Distracting? Honest? Or avoiding the harsh reality altogether (denial being one of the stages of grief)? I think it’s best to allow the patient to set that agenda.
I’ve lost several friends. With two of my friends who were dying, the dying itself became a subject they wanted and needed to deal with. I had to gird my loins and confront talks about their fears, lapses of faith, venting of anger (very normal). One asked me to help her prepare to talk to her children. Another wanted me to give spiritual guidance from my Eastern studies, which I did in the weeks leading up to her death.
Others who are ill or terminally ill don’t want to accept it. So you have to keep the conversation away from that until they are ready, no matter how much you want to speak the truth. You just let them distract themselves with medical details that are often hard to listen to; catheters that went in the wrong vein, pain during the night, the wounds, toilet dramas. Others are wanting to laugh. Yet others, like a blog I just read from a terminally ill girl, Lisa Magill, crave distance. She said last week: “The worst thing I’ve done over the past week is ignore phone calls and text messages. I’ve withdrawn from my friends, which I know is wrong, they only want to support me, but the sheer energy it takes to make my thoughts connect with my mouth is too much.”
It’s important to not expect anything back. A message such as “Just checking in, no need to respond” can be very calming. Drugs and chronic pain play a large role in responsiveness.
The point is that you walk to their pace, not your own — only being there to help make their journey as painless and peaceful as possible. In the end we can only offer what we can. Some of us can offer physical support by just bringing food; a friend used to go to hospital and wash the wigs of cancer patients. Some are able to have the intense conversations, bearing witness to someone saying goodbye to their bodies, independence, hope, a loved one gone too soon.
It never gets easier. But it becomes familiar as we get older and deal with more suffering. A knowingness doth arise. A Buddhist saying helps me support others: “I breathe in your pain, and breathe out light.”