Holding Space for Pain and Grief 

 “One of the tasks of true friendship is to listen compassionately and creatively to the hidden silences.” — John O’Donohue.

I’m often asked what ‘holding space for pain and grief” means. This concept can be hard to understand; it’s uncomfortable at times, it may even trigger our pain and feel counterintuitive; yet it can be the most loving and healing thing we can do for each other. It is also known as deep or compassionate listening.

Most of us are kind, loving and compassionate people. We want to help, and we are often conflicted by the need to do something tangible. Simply listening might seem like doing nothing. On the contrary, listening to or witnessing someone else’s pain can create an opening for that person to find healing for themselves. Often doing or saying something more concrete can interrupt a person’s pain. Deep listening is a way to hold space while we are with someone in distress.

I am blessed with knowing a few people who understand this well. I have been the recipient of this gift, and know the depth of healing this practice can bring. Those times when someone does this for me are heartfelt, healing and freeing. When my emotional pain almost seems too much to bear, having one person who I can trust who is willing to deeply listen, cracks open my heart to a stress release that I feel in my entire body.  I have also known this in rare communities, such as the Shalom retreats I journeyed on many years ago. Or the women’s group I have been in for over 20 years. I have also discovered recently another community that does this exceedingly well: a writers group called “Soulo”, which I’ve joined this year.

One of my favorite spiritual teachers is Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. He is a Buddhist monk, a global spiritual leader, peace activist, revered worldwide for his teachings on mindfulness, global ethics and peace. I have learned a lot from his teachings about holding space for others in pain.

Thich Nhat Hanh explains : “Deep listening is the kind of listening that can help relieve the suffering of another person. You can call it compassionate listening. You listen with only one purpose: to help him or her to empty his heart. You just listen with compassion and help him to suffer less.”

I don’t always say or do the right thing; but over time, my experience and what others have shared with me have taught me a lot. I believe, like any skill, it takes practice. Some of the most profound moments in my life have come from being in the moment and attentive to someone’s pain. When I can listen and even occasionally cry with someone in their pain without saying a word or looking away, it is known as compassionate, or deep, listening. I always try to remember while holding space for someone, to take slow, quiet, deep breaths; this helps me not take on the other person’s pain, although sometimes I still do. 

Deep listening asks nothing from us other than listening without interrupting, fixing, or giving advice. Most people do not want to be rescued when they are expressing grief or sadness. When we advise without being asked, we are making it about us by trying to fix them. It interrupts a sacred moment, a moment when someone is trusting us with their heartache. It may also mean sitting in silence with someone who needs to cry and wants to have someone near. 

It can also mean not touching someone’s hand or hugging them; this will often shut some people down. I try my best to wait for a person to cue me before hugging them or taking their hand. We all experience pain differently and are as individual as our fingerprints, yet it’s what unites us in our humanity. 

“People who are hurting don’t need Avoiders, Protectors, or Fixers. What we need are patient, loving witness. People to sit quietly and hold space for us. People to stand in helpful vigil to our pain.”― Glennon Doyle 

I have been married for over 42 years, and it’s only been in the last few years that my dear husband Bernie finally fully understands. We had been struggling a few years back. I remember my pain was mainly about not being heard. Like so many of us, he was busy trying to think of the right things to say to rescue or fix me. These thoughts always resulted in him being distracted, therefore not being present to me in the moment, which often exacerbated my pain. I have felt his love over the years – he has shown me in many beautiful ways – but his communication or listening skills were disappointing, at times. It would sometimes take a few days for us to work things out because of this.

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand: they listen with the intend to reply.” Steven Covey.

Finally, one evening after we had yet another disagreement and I had a few tears running down my face from frustration, I felt a shift in his energy and body language. It was like a light bulb went on, and Bernie became fully present; I could see it in his eyes. I felt a release that surged up and out of my throat from my gut. Tears fell like rain as I sobbed, soaking my shirt. I shared what was at the root of my struggle. I finally felt able to express myself fully and honestly. I cried and cried while he intensely listened without shutting down, averting his gaze, or saying a word. After what seemed like a long time, and I was utterly spent, he lovingly looked at me and said, “you feel much better now, I can see it in your face, I see you.” I cried again, but this time happy tears.

I remember those three little words in the movie Avatar, “I see you”, hearing them made me cry. Bernie and I loved that movie. I shared with him why I cried at the movie when I heard them; it was because it had been a long time since I felt them. 

“I see you.”. For the first time, my dear hubby got it, and from that day forward, we have given each other the gift of holding each other’s pain with deep listening. When any of us trust someone with the expression of our pain, all we want is to be heard and seen. 

 

Sometimes in our discomfort while listening to a person in pain, we will use platitudes. Although this may be well-intended, it can be frustrating to the very people we want to help. Phrases like: 

“Everything happens for a reason.”

“When God closes a door, He always opens a window.”

“What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.”  

“Time heals all wounds.” 

And many others that most of us have said at one time or another. There may be wisdom in most truisms, but that is for the person in pain to discover. When someone is in the middle of a grief or pain storm, that is not the time to share these. 

“We only trust people with our pain who won’t cut or steal it from us and who are brave enough to be as clueless and helpless as the one in pain. Friendship is not about fixing each other’s pain.” Glennon Doyle from her podcast “We can do hard things.”

Holding space allows someone to find their way out of a pain storm, allowing them to be the hero of their own story. Most often, we need to hear ourselves out loud to break through to the other side of our pain. Life can be challenging at times; the ebb and flow continue throughout our lives. Sometimes, the greatest act of love is to do or say nothing at all but listen. “I see you” <3.

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