Bereavement and Loss
Being a Healing Presence
Being physically present in the midst of loss, or even life’s minor and major transitions, is simple. Being emotionally present is not. I like to think of my own experiences as “rooms” that provide a hospitable, fully-furnished place to listen to the stories of another traveler on life’s journey, says Dr. Margaret Jones, Chaplain, McLaren Hospice. Being present means setting aside my preoccupations and “to do” lists, using what’s inside me, and really listening to the other person’s story.
However, telling someone: “I know just how you feel”…or “That same thing happened when I lost my (fill-in-the-blank)” says: “I can’t be hospitable because I need to tell you my story more than I want to hear yours” or “My story is more important than yours” or “I really don’t want to hear your story because I’m not sure I can handle what you have to say.” We can’t know what another is feeling, and no experiences of bereavement and loss are the same. Our stories and feelings will automatically be called to mind by the encounter because that is one way we process information. USING rather than VERBALIZING our stories and feelings deepens our listening and understanding and offers a healing presence.
|Asking someone to tell you their story of grief and loss is therapeutic. But it’s hard to listen to because many of us still see death, or change, as an enemy. Feelings can range from….”this can’t be happening to me”…to “Why did this happen to (fill-in-the-blank) when so many other people are not so nice…to “I don’t know how I’m going to go on.”
Loss does not come in a neat package. Sometimes we’ve had time to adjust to the friend who has a limited life span. We’ve been able to talk, remember, plan, and eventually say our “good-byes.” Sometimes death cuts its swath in a second – an automobile accident, a suicide, or a catastrophic heart attack. There was no chance to say good-bye, and we may feel shattered and robbed at our loss. There are so many ways to express grief. It’s not unusual for people to grieve privately. Sometimes the tears have not yet arrived. What’s important is to not bury our grief. Society sometimes takes a “Let’s get on with life” approach. Loss is a “forever” loss, and while grief is transformed over time and its outward signs will likely diminish, the relationship is not forgotten.
Being emotionally as well as physically present to a grieving person means having “face time” them. That means sitting near them, with eye contact, and compassion in your heart. They may feel the “hole” in their heart will never heal. If you’ve known the individual, you can recall other instances when they found their way to healing. Express confidence that, in time, they will discover the way through their grief. A healing presence often includes sitting together in silence.
One individual expressed how important it was to have five days with her mother when it was apparent she had a very limited time. It was a time of difficult decisions – moving her to Hospice from the hospital, and acknowledging she was never going to get better. It was a time of joy – remembering special moments from the past, and telling her mother that she’d had no better teacher for life’s gifts and lessons. Most importantly, the opportunity came to encourage her mother to “let go” – that we were ready to accompany her to the beginning of a new journey filled with no pain and no sadness. That week with her mother was healing for both of them.
Sometimes our possibilities for helping are limited when grief is very complicated. Individuals may need to take responsibility for seeking professional help to deal with their pain and loss. Working one’s way through feelings and healing after loss is a highly individual process. Our availability to the bereaved person can be a healing presence. It’s worthwhile, after some time has passed, to encourage some movement apart from their inner life by creating opportunities for them to gradually make their way back into the world. On the other hand, it’s not helpful to encourage “busyness” so the individual avoids dealing with their grief.
Being a healing presence is a gift with many returns. Learning how to really listen, without judgment, spills over into your daily life. You find yourself listening more attentively to others, and spending less time thinking about what to say next. You find that silence is sometimes the best response. It encourages the other to say more about how they’re feeling. There’s an authenticity that occurs because you’ve allowed yourself and another to be vulnerable to the moment.
Chaplain and Bereavement Coordinator for McLaren Greater Lansing Visiting Nurse and Hospice since 1 September 2002, Margaret Zee Jones, M.D., M.Div. is 2001 graduate of Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary (where she presently serves on the Board of Trustees) Evanston, IL. She was commissioned into the clergy of the United Methodist Church in June 2002. After completing training as chaplain in the clinical pastoral education programs of Rush Presbyterian St. Luke’s Medical Center, Chicago, and Duke University Medical Center, Durham, N.C., she received ecclesiastical endorsement as hospice chaplain in 2003. As Hospice chaplain, she serves in a non-denominational capacity. Her background as physician, scientist, and educator and experience with outreach programs for Michigan families with dementia enrich her present roles.
Two of Margaret Jones’ favorite references:
Schneider, John Finding My Way, Season’s Press, Colfax, WI, 1994.
Mitchell and Anderson. All My Losses, All My Griefs.