Witnessing Loss

Mental Health , , ,

This weekend, I listened to an amazing talk for the hospice volunteer crew about witnessing loss. It wasn’t at all what I thought it would be, to be honest. It was amazingly poignant and spoke to my soul. It made me realize how far I’ve come in sitting with loss – at least of others. My own loss? Hah! Maybe a different story.

The speaker spoke for a long time about imagining people’s loss like watching someone fall into a crevasse. You are at the top of the crevasse. What do you do to help? Well, you don’t just jump in because then there would be two people in the crevasse. But everything else is available to you: Maybe you help get them out by throwing a rope. Maybe you encourage them to find other ways out themselves. If it’s something they really can’t come out of and you have nothing to get them out, maybe all you can do is sit and listen.

The most important part of “sitting by the pit,” so to speak, is to not assume responsibility for their loss or their pain. It is not your fault they’ve landed in the pit (and it likely isn’t theirs either), and it also isn’t your responsibility to fix it. Most of the time, when someone is in a crevasse, the best you can do is be there, entirely present with them, as they suffer. It’s something we as Americans seem to struggle with. We want quick fixes. We want the diet pill instead of the hard-earned exercise.

I’m sure you can see why this analogy is relevant for hospice workers who are companions to those who are on death’s door. We can’t fix our patients’ problems. Even the doctors have given up (hence why they are on hospice). All we can do is hear their story – the good, the bads, the horrifying, the transforming. And when we listen to their stories, we can’t help but see ourselves in them, relate to them as human beings, cry with them, laugh with them, hear their burdens but not take them on. It is a meditation on acceptance, on sitting with a story, with a human, and just letting it be. In doing this, we ourselves are transformed.

It’s an interesting concept, I think, that witnessing others’ pain and fear allows us to identify with our own more strongly. As we do this, we are changed. This is in part because when people are dying, their priorities tend to be different. They aren’t focused on financial security (because you can’t take it with you) or new goals or any of the day-to-day grind. The most prominent thoughts at the end of one’s life seems to be mostly a re-evaluating of the past and the present and every moment you have until the official end. Why would you waste time balancing your checkbook when you could spend that half an hour watching your grandchild’s face light up (maybe for the last time)? Why would you do the laundry when you could be watching the sun rise or set? Why would you talk about the weather when you could make peace with a loved one instead? There is a waiting in dying…but there is also a *being* that is often missed when you feel your life will continue to draw out before you forever.

The *being* is the part that has changed me most. People who are dying have shown me the value of living, of choosing my life, of having no regrets, of *being* in my life and not just letting it pass me by without reflection. This is a gift – a gift many are unaware of. Most people are terrified of the idea of being around dying people because they will be constantly confronted with their own inevitable nonexistence. But if we can change our perspective and see that it also reflects our current *existence* and life before us, the fear is diminished by the truth that our life has value and we can choose what value it gives to us and to the world.

Don’t you get it? Until you’re gone, you’re *here!*

In all your sadness, in all your pain.

In all your heartbreak, in all your joys.

In all your beauty, in all your truth.

In all your failures, in all your successes.

In all your fears, in all your love.

You are incomplete.

You are ephemeral.

You choose if that story

is liberating or not.

You choose

your story.

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