Discover more from Finding Words in Hard Times - with Jon Swanson
026 - On "measuring" presence.
Welcome back (or welcome)!
I get lots of expected and unexpected questions about loss and grief and being helpful. That’s not a surprise. By day, I’m a hospital chaplain. By night, I’m a person who by day is a hospital chaplain.
In those conversations, I’m reminded of how much I don’t know. And I have the opportunity to think through what I do know.
I was talking to a friend the other day. He’s a pastor. He’s wanting to be helpful to a group of people going through a time of loss. As always, I suggested being present. He wanted something about how to do that. Are there practical ways to “measure” or “assess” presence?
I know that sounds odd. And I laughed a little. But he wasn’t trying to figure out how to check off being present. He wanted to understand how to know when we are being present with people. Which is important, since the research suggests that people often want someone to be with them.
In a project I did last fall, I asked people “When a loved one dies, what support do people find helpful?” Among the things that people wanted was presence. As one person wrote,
“…Sitting in silence with a hand to hold was just right. I needed to set the pace I guess. I felt firehosed by others’ emotionally charged talking.”
“To start,” I said to my friend, “rather than managing their grief, be with them in their grief.” He stopped to write that down. And I quickly repeated it to myself so that I’d remember it later. It’s possible that I’m quoting someone else. Wherever it came from, I like the idea a lot.
When someone is tearful or telling stories about the death of a loved one, many people want to figure out how to stop the tears, to alleviate the pain, to help the person move toward meaning-making. Sometimes our motives are good (though misguided). Sometimes our motives are to alleviate our own discomfort.
Regardless, it’s not our job to manage someone’s grief. To get them to “the next step”. To make them feel better or to not be so sad.
This is particularly true in organization settings, including churches. As leaders and managers, sometimes we want to solve the problem of this person’s pain, because it’s disrupting the organization.
Instead of managing, be with them in their grief. Which may mean working a little to understand the loss.
Since grief is a response to loss, spend a little time thinking about what the loss is. Did the person who has been breathing every day that they have been alive suddenly stop breathing? Did the person who has been part of every decision for the past sixty years suddenly stop participating in the decisions? Did the person they had been angry with for thirty years suddenly move beyond acknowledging hurting them?
You can fill in your own story. That story you wish someone would have understood, that story you wish that someone had asked you about instead of telling you to stop crying.
That willingness to wait for a story to be told, the willingness to listen, the willingness to speak when spoken too, that willingness and waiting is a way to think about presence.
I’m also rethinking our habit of asking people how they are doing. Or asking how they are holding up. What we think is that we are being sensitive, that we are allowing people to talk.
Sometimes those questions force people to think through all their feelings to find the acceptable answer for particular audiences. So if we ask, “how are you doing?” They have to ask themselves whether it is safe to explain how hollow they feel.
What can we do instead?
My shift to saying “This is hard” came from starting with acknowledgement rather than interrogation. (Here’s a longer description.)
“Have a water” is another starting point.
“Hey” works as well. And then stopping and waiting.
Asking whether Aunt Hazel has stopped by yet is another possibility.
But don’t lurk. Lurking is annoying, particularly for an introvert.
In Hope is The First Dose, Lee describes someone who is just there following the death of his son, being helpful but not intrusive. Zane was a friend and trusted colleague. And he told them what he was going to do. “I’m going to sit here and wait,” he says. “When you need something, I will do it.”
Rather than assessing how Lee and Lisa were feeling, rather than forcing answers, Zane was a nonintrusive, intentional presence.
Nancy and I are going to spend some time next week being present. I almost decided to not send out this newsletter. But what I’ll send is a summary of some of most helpful newsletters from the year so far. Some of you haven’t seen them, Others of us need reminders.
And then I’ll be back with new ideas in a couple weeks.
I’m cheering for you. You are being helpful.