When my mom was dying, my siblings and I gathered to be with her in her final days. None of us knew anything about supporting someone in her transition out of this life into the next, but we were pretty sure we wanted to keep her at home, so we did.
While we supported mom, we were, in turn, supported by a gifted palliative care nurse, Ann, who came every few days to care for mom and to talk to us about what we could expect in the coming days. She taught us how to inject Mom with morphine when she became restless, she offered to do the difficult tasks (like giving Mom a bath), and she gave us only as much information as we needed about what to do with Mom’s body after her spirit had passed.
“Take your time,” she said. “You don’t need to call the funeral home until you’re ready. Gather the people who will want to say their final farewells. Sit with your mom as long as you need to. When you’re ready, call and they will come to pick her up.”
Ann gave us an incredible gift in those final days. Though it was an excruciating week, we knew that we were being held by someone who was only a phone call away.
In the two years since then, I’ve often thought about Ann and the important role she played in our lives. She was much more than what can fit in the title of “palliative care nurse”. She was facilitator, coach, and guide. By offering gentle, nonjudgmental support and guidance, she helped us walk one of the most difficult journeys of our lives.
The work that Ann did can be defined by a term that’s become common in some of the circles in which I work. She was holding space for us.
What does it mean to hold space for someone else? It means that we are willing to walk alongside another person in whatever journey they’re on without judging them, making them feel inadequate, trying to fix them, or trying to impact the outcome. When we hold space for other people, we open our hearts, offer unconditional support, and let go of judgement and control.
Sometimes we find ourselves holding space for people while they hold space for others. In our situation, for example, Ann was holding space for us while we held space for Mom. Though I know nothing about her support system, I suspect that there are others holding space for Ann as she does this challenging and meaningful work. It’s virtually impossible to be a strong space holder unless we have others who will hold space for us. Even the strongest leaders, coaches, nurses, etc., need to know that there are some people with whom they can be vulnerable and weak without fear of being judged.
In my own roles as teacher, facilitator, coach, mother, wife, and friend, etc., I do my best to hold space for other people in the same way that Ann modeled it for me and my siblings. It’s not always easy, because I have a very human tendency to want to fix people, give them advice, or judge them for not being further along the path than they are, but I keep trying because I know that it’s important. At the same time, there are people in my life that I trust to hold space for me.
To truly support people in their own growth, transformation, grief, etc., we can’t do it by taking their power away (ie. trying to fix their problems), shaming them (ie. implying that they should know more than they do), or overwhelming them (ie. giving them more information than they’re ready for). We have to be prepared to step to the side so that they can make their own choices, offer them unconditional love and support, give gentle guidance when it’s needed, and make them feel safe even when they make mistakes.
Holding space is not something that’s exclusive to facilitators, coaches, or palliative care nurses. It is something that ALL of us can do for each other – for our partners, children, friends, neighbours, and even strangers who strike up conversations as we’re riding the bus to work.
Here are the lessons I’ve learned from Ann and others who have held space for me.
1. Give people permission to trust their own intuition and wisdom. When we were supporting Mom in her final days, we had no experience to rely on, and yet, intuitively, we knew what was needed. We knew how to carry her shrinking body to the washroom, we knew how to sit and sing hymns to her, and we knew how to love her. We even knew when it was time to inject the medication that would help ease her pain. In a very gentle way, Ann let us know that we didn’t need to do things according to some arbitrary health care protocol – we simply needed to trust our intuition and accumulated wisdom from the many years we’d loved Mom.
2. Give people only as much information as they can handle. Ann gave us some simple instructions and left us with a few handouts, but did not overwhelm us with far more than we could process in our tender time of grief. Too much information would have left us feeling incompetent and unworthy.
3. Don’t take their power away. When we take decision-making power out of people’s hands, we leave them feeling useless and incompetent. There may be some times when we need to step in and make hard decisions for other people (ie. when they’re dealing with an addiction and an intervention feels like the only thing that will save them), but in almost every other case, people need the autonomy to make their own choices (even our children). Ann knew that we needed to feel empowered in making decisions on our Mom’s behalf, and so she offered support but never tried to direct or control us.
4. Keep your own ego out of it. This is a big one. We all get caught in that trap now and then – when we begin to believe that someone else’s success is dependent on our intervention, or when we think that their failure reflects poorly on us, or when we’re convinced that whatever emotions they choose to unload on us are about us instead of them. It’s a trap I’ve occasionally found myself slipping into when I teach. I can become more concerned about my own success (Do the students like me? Do their marks reflect on my ability to teach? Etc.) than about the success of my students. But that doesn’t serve anyone – not even me. To truly support their growth, I need to keep my ego out of it and create the space where they have the opportunity to grow and learn.
5. Help them feel safe enough to fail. When people are learning, growing, or going through grief or transition, they are bound to make some mistakes along the way. When we, as their space holders, withhold judgement and shame, we offer them the opportunity to reach inside themselves to find the courage to take risks and the resilience to keep going even when they fail. When we let them know that failure is simply a part of the journey and not the end of the world, they’ll spend less time beating themselves up for it and more time learning from their mistakes.
6. Give guidance and help with humility and thoughtfulness. wise space holder knows when to withhold guidance (ie. when it makes a person feel foolish and inadequate) and when to offer it gently (ie. when a person asks for it or is too lost to know what to ask for). Though Ann did not take our power or autonomy away, she did offer to come and give Mom baths and do some of the more challenging parts of caregiving. This was a relief to us, as we had no practice at it and didn’t want to place Mom in a position that might make her feel shame (ie. having her children see her naked). This is a careful dance that we all must do when we hold space for other people. Recognizing the areas in which they feel most vulnerable and incapable and offering the right kind of help without shaming them takes practice and humility.
7. Create a container for complex emotions, fear, trauma, etc. When people feel that they are held in a deeper way than they are used to, they feel safe enough to allow complex emotions to surface that might normally remain hidden. Someone who is practiced at holding space knows that this can happen and will be prepared to hold it in a gentle, supportive, and nonjudgmental way. In The Circle Way, we talk about “holding the rim” for people. The circle becomes the space where people feel safe enough to fall apart without fearing that this will leave them permanently broken or that they will be shamed by others in the room. Someone is always there to offer strength and courage. This is not easy work, and it is work that I continue to learn about as I host increasingly more challenging conversations. We cannot do it if we are overly emotional ourselves, if we haven’t done the hard work of looking into our own shadow, or if we don’t trust the people we are holding space for. In Ann’s case, she did this by showing up with tenderness, compassion, and confidence. If she had shown up in a way that didn’t offer us assurance that she could handle difficult situations or that she was afraid of death, we wouldn’t have been able to trust her as we did.
8. Allow them to make different decisions and have different experiences than you would. Holding space is about respecting each person’s differences and recognizing that those differences may lead to them making choices that we would not make. Sometimes, for example, they make choices based on cultural norms that we can’t understand from within our own experience. When we hold space, we release control and we honour differences. This showed up, for example, in the way that Ann supported us in making decisions about what to do with Mom’s body after her spirit was no longer housed there. If there had been some ritual that we felt we needed to conduct before releasing her body, we were free to do that in the privacy of Mom’s home.
Holding space is not something that we can master overnight, or that can be adequately addressed in a list of tips like the ones I’ve just given. It’s a complex practice that evolves as we practice it, and it is unique to each person and each situation.
It is my intention to be a life-long learning in what it means to hold space for other people, so if you have experience that’s different than mine and want to add anything to this post, please add that in the comments or send me a message.
If you’ve found yourself to this post, a few years after it went viral, you might want to check out my book, The Art of Holding Space: A Practice of Love, Liberation and Leadership. I’ve also co-founded the Centre for Holding Space where we’ve got lots of new programs and resources to help you learn how to hold space for yourself and others, including a Path to Certification. Since this post was published, I have trained hundreds of people all over the world in how to hold space, and the work continues to grow.
This article has been translated into a number of languages (by volunteers):
Follow-up pieces about holding space:
How to hold space for yourself first
What’s the opposite of holding space?
Sometimes holding space feels like doing nothing
Sometimes you have to write on the walls: Some thoughts on holding space for other people’s personal growth
On holding space when there is an imbalance of power and privilege
Leave space for others to fill your needs
What the circle holds
An unresolved story that I don’t know how to tell
Holding liminal space (moving beyond the cliché into deeper space)
If you’re looking for a pdf version for printing and/or passing around to others, you can download it here. You’re welcome to share it, but if you want to re-publish any part of it, please contact me.
I am carrying a huge basket of stories that I gathered on my trip. Each day I added new stories emerging from the deep conversations I had with people in my travels through Reno, Lake Tahoe, Oakland, San Francisco, Atlanta, Asheville, and finally Lake Lanier. I want to share all of those stories with you, but some of them need to ripen in the basket a little longer before they’ll be ready to be harvested.
First of all, let me tell you that this trip was all about love. Here’s what I posted on Facebook when I first got home…
After all of my travels in five states, after all of the deep and soulful conversations, after the early morning sunrises over the lake, after the sharing circles, after the ziplining, after the skinny-dipping, after the wandering in the woods, after the cracking open of many hearts, after my talk about the courage to lead differently, after bountiful feasts from the hands of many farmers, after the laughter, after the tears, after the deep body hugs and the tenderhearted kisses… after it all fades into memory, my learning can be boiled down to the words on the mug I brought home… Love more. Love fiercely and deeply. Love courageously. Love ridiculously. Love the sky and the earth and the dogs and the caterpillars. Love the wine and the music. Love the brave hearts and the fearful hearts. Love the ones that are easy to love and those who are more difficult. Love with wild abandon. Love until your heart cracks wide open and we all see the fleshy softness inside. Love more and let yourself be loved. Don’t be afraid of love.
It might sound rather pie-in-the-sky, but it’s the ground on which I stand. Love is what let me go on this journey when so many of you supported this dream. Love is what let me connect with beautiful people all along the way. Love is what inspired me to share from my heart on stage. Love is what gave me the courage to believe I had something to share. It’s all about love.
Almost as soon as I got home from my journey, reality smacked me across the face. There’s a huge crack in our basement wall that will probably cost us thousands to fix, my aunt died of brain cancer while I was away and her funeral was yesterday, I’m dealing with a nasty bug bite that I got in Atlanta that seems to be infected and I spent yesterday evening in urgent care, and there’s a little heartbreak in my relationship with one of my daughters. Any of those things individually could have sent me into a tailspin of despair, but they didn’t. I’m okay. I’m more than okay. I am feeling strong and courageous, and – more than anything – loved.
LOVE has made me resilient. LOVE has given me courage. LOVE has given me hope.
At Patti Digh’s Design Your Life Camp at Lake Lanier last week, Maya Stein and Amy Tingle did something so breathtakingly beautiful and full of love, I found my heart breaking wide open. First of all, they’d brought their vintage trailer MAUDE (Mobile Art Unit Designed for Everyone) along to camp and they were inviting everyone to visit to make art tags to hang in a tree. Secondly, they each had vintage typewriters, and if you offered them a single word, they would each write a spontaneous poem on an index card made especially for you. They did both of these things with beauty, grace and generosity, not asking to be paid or flaunting their brand in anyone’s face – simply offering this gift to anyone who would receive it.
The first time I saw them with their typewriters, I felt a little overwhelmed – not sure I could step forward and feel worthy enough of the gift. I was intrigued, but it felt somehow vulnerable and tender to give them a word and then simply receive. I had already received so much on this journey (and even before the journey in order to make it possible) that the gremlins were saying “You’ve received enough. You had the AUDACITY to ask people to help pay for this trip. How DARE you think that you are worthy of another gift?”
When I came out of the session the next evening, though, and saw them with their typewriters again, I knew I just had to do it. I knew I was worthy. I knew, deep down in my bones, that I wanted this gift and was ready to receive it.
I stood in line and waited… and agonized over what word was the right one. I wrote one word down, but then it didn’t feel right, so I scratched it out. Just before I got to the front of the line, I knew what my word was. Resilient.
Resilient is how I feel these past couple of months as I emerge into my work in a bigger way after the hard, hard year of losing Mom, watching my husband have a heart attack, breaking my foot, and then finding out my brother has stage 4 cancer. Resilient is what I’ve been in the past, after losing dad very suddenly, having a stillborn son, and watching the man I love wrestle with depression so powerful he attempted suicide twice. Resilience is one of my strengths and it’s one of the gifts I give to my clients in this work of being real and courageous and hopeful in this broken world.
And so I stood there, tenderly and anxiously, waiting to see what they’d do with the word resilient.
What emerged floored me and broke me open.
Here’s what Amy wrote:
The Amy she mentioned is Amy Dier, who had just shared a very personal story from the stage about learning to love and trust herself and allow herself to be seen. She was a former police officer who’d gone into law enforcement partly because she’d been raped when she was a teenager. She said she’d only shared the story of her rape with 8 people before saying it aloud in this room full of 150 people. After sharing the story, she invited us all to stand in a circle and she walked around the circle, looking into our eyes, and saying to each of us one at a time “I see you.”
What Amy the poet had no way of knowing was that Amy Dier and I do indeed share a story or two – the story of surviving rape, as well as the story of learning to believe we are worthy of being seen.
The second poem, from Maya, was the perfect addition, in a way that neither poet could possibly have known.The day after I was raped by a man who climbed through my bedroom window, I was supposed to take part in a triathlon relay race. I was going to ride 40 kilometres on my bicycle, while others did the running and swimming legs. This felt like a courageous and fierce act for me at the time, given the fact that I’d never believed I was athletic enough to be in any competition of that sort.
I never completed that bicycle ride. My body was too sore after the abuse it took at the hands of the rapist. Plus I felt a strong urge to drive home to the farm to be with my Mom and Dad.
But that doesn’t mean I didn’t get back on the bicycle, again and again and again. My whole life has been an act of getting back on that bicycle, each time I fall down. Through all of the deaths, disappointment, and tragedy in my life, I keep getting back on my bicycle – both literally and figuratively. (Ironically, I was actually on my way into the garage to go for a bike ride with my daughter when I broke my foot in Spring. Another metaphor, perhaps?)
And that brings me back to love. I get back on my bicycle because of love. I stay in a marriage that has been challenging because of love. I keep showing up for funerals because of love. I drive across the country to be with my brother after cancer surgery because of love. I sit beside my mother and watch her die because of love. I show up for my teenagers even when they’re snarly because of love. I travel across the country and sit in circle with myriads of beautiful people because of love. I coach my clients and host retreats because of love.
I do what I do because I have been given a lot of love and because I have a lot of love to give.
I pour love into everything I do. And love is what sustains me and gives me courage for this work. Because love is worth it. Love has made me who I am, and that is a beautiful thing.
The next time you need courage or resilience, remember that it starts with love. Give love and receive it and you will be able to get back on that bicycle, no matter how many times you fall.
Go ahead, love more.
Twenty-five years ago, a man climbed through my apartment window and raped me in my bed. When I fought back, he wrapped his angry fingers around my throat, shoved my head between the wall and the bed and tried to choke me to death.
When he finally left my apartment, I ran down the street to my friends’ apartment. While I sat on their couch telling them what had happened, Terence sat on the floor at my feet and cried. He took me to the hospital and stayed there until the doctor had examined me and the police had asked me a hundred questions. Later that day, my brother Dwight came and spent the day with me. Tears appeared in his eyes too.
The next day I went home to the farm and told my parents what had happened. My stoic, pacifist father had to leave the room for awhile to collect his emotions, and when he returned, he admitted that he finally understood the man who’d spent several years of his life hunting down his daughter’s rapist.
Many women showed compassion to me as well, and they are important, but, in retrospect, I believe it was a game-changer for me that men were in my corner along with the women. The fact that all of my family and friends – women AND men – cared about what happened meant that it was a crime against humanity rather than just a crime against women.
From the start, I was able to speak freely of my rape experience, without having to hide behind shame, and that’s largely due to the way that my friends and family supported me. Some people were surprised at how candid I was, expecting me to keep it a secret, but I kept saying “Why wouldn’t I talk about it? A crime was done to me. I did nothing wrong and it doesn’t need to be a secret.”
Sadly, most of the one billion women who experience rape in their lifetime are not able to speak of it. Instead they are taught (by both men and women) that it is something to be ashamed of, that they brought it on themselves, or that it’s cultural taboo to admit that it happened.
We need to talk about rape, and we need men to care about it along with the women. To make real change, rape needs to be seen as a crime against humanity. Anything less than that, and it can be dismissed as a “women’s issue”. If rape is only a women’s issue, than any violence or oppression of women is equally unimportant, and suddenly we have allowed half of the world’s population to be silenced.
Recently, there have been reports of American politicians making unconscionable comments about rape, first about a woman’s body being able to “shut that whole thing down” to prevent pregnancy from a “legitimate rape”, and then a comment that perhaps a pregnancy from a rape was because “God intended it to happen”. According to Nicholas Kristoff’s recent column, these comments only scratch the surface of the real problems related to rape. What’s underneath is a lot of evidence that rape is not taken seriously by the authorities meant to protect American citizens. In many states, the rape kits collected after women are assaulted collect dust on a shelf and are never tested, and in some places, the women who’ve been raped have to pay for the testing to be done.
In a so-called “developed country” it is an abomination that sexual assault is not taken as seriously as other crimes. Violence against half of a country’s population is being overlooked on a regular basis. It’s even worse in other parts of the world where women are often sent away from home after a rape, or forced to marry their rapist.
Violence against women is a serious enough issue on its own, but, sadly, it is only a symptom of a much larger disease that has infected our world and we must take it very, very seriously. It’s a disease I dare to call patriarchy. Patriarchy is an unbalanced system that allows those in power to exploit and violate those who have less power.
If we, as a culture, are willing to overlook rape, then we are saying, in essence, that it is okay to use violence to overpower other people and/or the earth. If we ignore the rape of women, we also ignore the rape of our oilsands, the destruction of our oceans, the plundering of other countries, and the exploitation of the poor.
Power is a destructive force if it is allowed to run rampant without being balanced with love. As Adam Kahane says in his book Power and Love, the two are like the legs we walk on – each one holds the balance for a second and then shifts to the other. It’s the only way we can move forward in a balanced way.
Men (and women) the world over need to start paying more attention to rape because our world depends on it. It cannot remain a shameful issue that women are only allowed to whisper about in the company of other women. Until it has been brought to the forefront of our politics, the world will continue to be out of balance and we will continue to put power ahead of love.
Every woman in the world needs to be surrounded with the kind of compassionate men that I was surrounded with. Only when men and women work together to end rape and to stop the power-imbalance of patriarchy will the world come into balance.
p.s. On February 14, 2013, I’ll be rising with One Billion Rising. Won’t you join me? Women AND men?
Ten years ago I was lost. I had just returned to work after my fourth and final maternity leave, and I was completely miserable. Not only was it hard to leave my baby every day, but I was in a job that didn’t sustain or inspire me. All it did was drain my energy every single day. In those days, it wasn’t unusual for tears to flow on the way home from work.
Five years earlier, I’d taken my first leadership job in the government and I took to it like a duck to water. I loved the challenge and I loved my team. I was inspired and energized by the opportunity to provide them guidance and unleash their creative potential. I had an eager and talented young staff and we worked together beautifully, finding creative ways to communicate and commemorate the sacrifices our veterans had made.
At the start, it was good, but then things started to go wrong. For one thing, I started to internalize some of the messaging I was hearing at leadership workshops and from leadership mentors. “Keep your feelings out of leadership.” “It’s about control and moderation, not about passion.” “Don’t let them see you vulnerable.” “Use your head and ignore your heart.”
For another thing, I stepped away from that first job to take one that offered higher pay and more security. Unfortunately, it was all wrong for me and the environment was toxic. It was a science environment where most of the leaders were in their roles because of their knowledge of science rather than their leadership abilities or their understanding of people. As a professional communicator, I was usually the only one at the management team table who didn’t have an advanced science degree. In an environment that valued left-brain logical thinking, there was little space for my right-brain, intuitive, heart-based approach to leadership.
I felt lost – like a foreigner in a foreign land. If this was what leadership entailed, I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a leader anymore.
And then one day, I started to explore a new way of looking at leadership (that was much closer to the way I’d intuitively lead when I’d first started) and it felt like someone had offered me a lifeline. I can’t remember whose work I discovered first, but three writers started to show up on my radar screen – Christina Baldwin, David Irvine, and Margaret Wheatley. All three wrote about authentic, community-based, vulnerable leadership. They inspired me to lead from a place in the circle, live simply in a complex world, and turn to one another. (I am deeply grateful that in the years since then, I’ve had the opportunity to attend workshops with all three of these incredible teachers.)
Not long after that, I left the government for non-profit. It was a job I loved, but it was also one that challenged me in more ways than I’d ever been challenged before. Every leadership ability that I thought I’d gained and every principle I thought I valued was put to the test. I led a national team that was mostly full of fiercely independent people who didn’t really want to be lead. I was emotionally abused, I had a lawsuit filed against me by someone who felt she was wrongfully dismissed, I witnessed more than one emotional breakdown among my staff, and I had to deal with multiple conflicts and miscommunications between staff. It was a good place to work, but it was hard and I often felt very much alone. I was floundering and there was nobody to talk to about it. I searched for a circle of other leaders who might serve as my support system, but I found none. The best I could do was have regular coffee dates with my friend Susan who understood my challenges and was always a good listening ear.
When I finally left that job to become self-employed, I knew that one of the things I wanted to do was to serve women like me who knew they had a calling to be in leadership in some form or another (whether at the boardroom table or the kitchen table) and needed someone to support and guide them. I tried to do that from the beginning, and I briefly offered a program called “How to Lead with Your Paint Clothes On”, but there was something holding me back that I had to work through first.
The truth is, there were some failure stories that were getting in the way of my calling to support other emerging leaders. There was the story of my last year at the non-profit, when I was so burnt out that I was mostly ineffectual as a leader. There was the story of the ugliness of the lawsuit (that was never resolved, by the way), and the difficulties surrounding that relationship. There was the story of the pseudo-coach who’d blasted me for my unprofessionalism when I responded emotionally to a staff member’s suicide threat. There was the story of the many attempts I’d made to build a unified team out of independently-working people spread across the country.
Every time I’d think about offering a leadership program for women emerging into leadership, I’d get blocked by the gremlins that told me “you failed at leadership – what gives you the audacity to think you could teach people?”
And yet, the memory of the lifeline I’d been offered in my most lost place kept propelling me forward. I knew that the woman I was ten years ago desperately needed women like me to serve as her guide – women who’d been through the challenges, admitted her failures, had a few glorious moments, and learned from her mistakes. I knew that she needed someone who would encourage her without judging her. I knew she needed to be given permission to lead with her heart and not just her head. I knew – more than anything – that she needed someone to say “You’re okay. You’re enough. You’re on the right path. Don’t give up.”
This summer, I had the privilege of co-hosting a beautiful circle of 44 women at the annual Gather the Women gathering, and I walked away inspired once again by the need this world has for more women to gather in circle and offer their hearts into the service of transformation. After asking the women to share stories of courage, I knew that the most courageous thing I could do would be to more boldly and confidently step into the role of guide for women emerging into leadership.
Finally, after two years of self-employment, I am ready to offer the thing that’s been tugging at my heart for years – a personal leadership program for women emerging as changemakers, artists, visionaries, storytellers, and edgewalkers.
It’s called Lead with your Wild Heart, and it comes directly from my wild heart to yours.
First and foremost, it’s about redefining leadership. I believe what Margaret Wheatley says, that “a leader is anyone who is willing to help, anyone who sees something that needs to change and takes the first step to influence that situation.”
This program is for you if you’re imagining a better future for yourself, your community, or the world. It’s for you if you feel something nudging you to step into your courage. It’s for you if you’re the lost young woman I was, stuck in a corporate world that’s eating away at your soul. It’s for you if you’ve been wounded by a patriarchal model of leadership and you need healing and encouragement. It’s for you if you need permission to follow your heart. It’s for you if you’ve been longing for a program that honours ALL of who you are – body, mind, and spirit.
I offer this humbly, admitting that I have made mistakes and that I still have much to learn in my journey. Because I still have much to learn, I have invited a number of wise, wild-hearted friends to share their stories and wisdom with the participants of the program as well. I’m honoured that a long list of willing guides (including some people who’ve been my own teachers) have stepped forward and agreed to have conversations with me that will be recorded and made available as part of the program. Follow the link to find out more.
I hope that you’ll consider joining me and/or share this with other women you know who might need it.
I have been the recipient of a great deal of compassion lately – openhearted, open-armed, soul-enriching compassion. I am deeply blessed.
It brings to mind the simple words my Dad used to say almost every time we left the house. “Be kind,” he said, and we knew that if we did nothing else but offer someone kindness that day, then we had been successful in Dad’s eyes.
There have been a LOT of successful people in my life lately.
Not only have I been comforted and encouraged by kindness, I have been educated by it. Here are my thoughts, based on what I’ve witnessed, about how to offer compassion to people you care about who are going through tough times.
1. Create safety. The most important thing you can do is offer the person a safe place to fall apart. Be trustworthy, be present, be available, and be soft. Give them the warmth of your touch, the comfort of your words, and the gift of your listening.
2. Refrain from offering advice until you know they’re strong enough to receive it (and/or they’ve asked for it). When a person is feeling vulnerable and broken, unsolicited advice can make them feel like they’ve failed or they’re not as good as you are at handling difficult times. Your advice may be valuable, but don’t offer it if it will make them feel small.
3. Withhold judgement. Nobody who’s going through a difficult journey wants to be judged for their weakness, their tears, their messy home, or their indecisiveness. Bite your tongue even if you think they’re being foolish or immature. Let them be weak if they need to be weak. There will be time for strength later.
4. Be an active listener. Let the person suffering do most of the talking and be fully present for what they are saying. In the middle of the struggle, there is nothing quite as powerful as knowing that you are heard and seen. Don’t try to fill the silences with platitudes or solutions. Leave as much space as they need to share their stories and work through what they need someone to hear.
5. Offer empathy, not sympathy. Empathy lets a person know they’re not alone, sympathy leaves them feeling inferior. Empathy builds bridges, sympathy builds walls. People who offer sympathy (eg. “poor you”) instead of empathy are usually doing it because they feel some need to elevate themselves above the other person.
6. Share your stories to make them feel less alone, but don’t overshadow their stories. Stories are really important in times of grief or stress, but the most important stories that need to be shared at that time are the ones that belong to the person going through the trouble. Offer your own stories in a respectable manner, but only after they’ve had a chance to share theirs.
7. Do not pretend to know EXACTLY what they’re going through. You can’t possibly know just what they’re experiencing because you are a different person carrying different baggage. You may have been on a similar path and felt similar pain (and that’s worth sharing), but each person’s path is his/her own. Let them describe what they’re going through rather than assuming you know.
8. Let them cry. Cry with them if that is what emerges. Don’t try to end their grief or fix their pain. Sit with them in the middle of that field of grief and just let what is be what it needs to be. Nobody can take a shortcut through pain, so don’t pretend you’ve found one. Watching a loved one cry feels excruciating, and you really, really want to fix it for them, but to show them the kind of love they need, you need to let the tears flow and simply bear witness.
9. Let them know that they are courageous, even if their courage only shows up in very small ways. When the road is hard, just putting one foot in front of another takes courage. Sometimes getting out of bed in the morning takes courage. Help them discover their own basketful of courage stories – memories of the times when they have shown courage that will help them rise to the challenges ahead.
10. Just love them. Plain and simple. Bring them supper, buy them chai latte, babysit their kids, take them out to a movie, show up to help them serve the food at the funeral they’ve been dreading, sit with them at the hospital, buy them toilet paper when you’re sure they haven’t had a moment to go shopping, drop love notes in their mailbox… do whatever it takes to let them know they are surrounded by love.
Last week was tough. It was one of those weeks when it felt like every story that was shared with me was a tough one.
To start with, we’re afraid my Mom’s cancer may have come back. Nothing is confirmed, but she’s not been well and the symptoms seem to point back to cancer.
Then, at the beginning of the week, my friend Wes died… and then came back to life. He collapsed and his heart wasn’t beating on its own for over half an hour. Thanks to a quick response from his wife (who gave him CPR for 5 minutes) and a lot of hard work from the EMTs who arrived in the ambulance, he was brought back to us. After a few stressful days in a coma, he’s on the road to recovery.
That story turned back toward hope, but other stories I’m surrounded with are still firmly rooted in pain. Like the friend whose mom is in a psychiatric ward because of severe depression. And some other people very dear to me who are grappling with some of the challenges of parenting teens.
I’ll admit that I had some moments of meltdown in the middle of the week, when I just couldn’t focus on my teaching work because life felt so fleeting and hard.
Mostly, though, I felt grounded and supported. In the middle of the pain, there were some beautiful stories of hope, community, and transformation.
I’ve been through a lot of hard weeks in my life. We all have. One of the things we all know is that sometimes life is a struggle.
After being a student of struggle for a lot of years, here’s what I’ve learned about surviving the hard weeks.
1. Be soft. Let your vulnerabilities show. Find a friend who will honour your tears. Don’t try to be a hero by hiding your hurt. When I was hurting the most, my friend Diane sent me the following quote from Mark Nepo. “One of the most painful barriers we can experience is the sense of isolation that the modern world fosters, which can only be broken by our willingness to be held, by the quiet courage to allow our vulnerabilities to be seen. For as water fills a hole and as light fills the dark, kindness wraps around what is soft, if what is soft can be seen. So admitting what we need , asking for help, letting our softness show— these are prayers without words that friends, strangers, wind and time all wrap themselves around. Allowing ourselves to be held is like returning to the womb.”
2. Be quiet. Find time in the middle of the struggle to sit quietly with yourself and your God. Meditate, pray, go for walks, or just sit and stare at a tree. You are NEVER so busy that you can afford to live without some quiet contemplative time.
3. Show up. When friends are hurting, show up. You don’t have to have the right words, or know just the right thing to do to help them, just show up. You’ll both feel better after some time together. This week was all about showing up for people – walking along the river with a friend, sitting in the hospital waiting room with other friends, playing dominoes with my mom, and having breakfast with a family member. I’m not one of these people who knows just what meals to cook or which groceries to drop off in times of need (I usually serve as delivery person for my husband’s famous pot of chilli when friends are in need of food), but I’m pretty good at listening and just being present. I can tell you from the many times that friends have shown up for me that every person who shows up is valued.
4. Find community and BE community. A remarkable thing happened when Wes’ heart stopped – a powerful community came together to pray for him, to support the family, and to just be present. I looked around the packed waiting room at the intensive care unit and realized that every person in the room was there because they love Wes. I can’t say enough about how valuable it is to be part of community. We need each other! We are not meant to live through our pain alone. We are meant to fill waiting rooms with the people who love us.
5. Be broken. It’s okay – you don’t have to be strong all the time. You can find your strength in other people and in your faith. That doesn’t mean that you’re a weak person. It means that you are a LUCKY person to have the people who’ll surround you and help you walk through the tough spots.
6. Share stories. The world is healed through shared stories. Stories connect us to each other and build bridges across the divides. When we invest in each other’s stories, we invest in each other’s lives. Hearing someone else’s story let’s me know that I am not alone. Sharing a story offers healing for both the listener and the storyteller.
7. Be kind to yourself. Cut yourself some slack if the laundry doesn’t get folded on you’ve ordered take-out for the third night in a row. Go ahead – take a hot bath instead of doing the dishes. If that’s what it takes to get you through, you have to give yourself permission to let go of the expectations you normally place on yourself.