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bearing witness at time of loss

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griefA friend wrote about ways to comfort a daughter who has lost someone dear. Nothing ameliorates the injustice of sudden death, especially of a person so young. The best we can offer is com-passion: literally to suffer with. Bearing witness is the way I’m learning to be in the presence of death and grief: to sit near the bereaved and give my undivided awareness. To hold them or to let them be, whatever is needed. To be in silence and listen. To assure them of my love it that moment. The aim is not to take the pain away but to honour it as part of growing towards wholeness. Not to give advice but to listen to my own battered heart. Not to fix but to bow to whatever shows up.

Stephen Levine has dedicated his life to be with people at the crossroad of life and death; he continues to help us make sense of that which appears so senseless. He writes:

The meaning of life changes when we confront loss. Our search for meaning and purpose leaves us wandering and bewildered. What was ordinary yesterday becomes precious today, and what was precious yesterday seems dull and lusterless. What we liked becomes uninteresting, but what we love becomes everything.

There is a balance that we need to honor as we try to “find meaning” in any event or state of mind: Many people confuse finding meaning with finding a reason, putting our finger on something or someone for blame. … Meaning is an attempt to decipher the bitter-sweet world, at making sense, giving order, to the seemingly random twist of things. It is a plea for the completion of incomplete loose ends. … We are looking for a cosmic coincidence to interpret it all, to reinforce that there is any meaning to everything after all.

But all that is work for future days. Loss is loss. It is immediate and overwhelming. A piece of our world has dropped out and we’re unable to comprehend. Sadness, confusion, anger, helplessness are our companions right now. So are body aches, sleepless nights, endless tears. The mind returns to the past, replays old images, remembers moments enjoyed and opportunities missed.

Paradoxically, the one gift we can offer each other is our own woundedness. It connects us as humans, from heart to heart. May the words and gestures emerging from that place cleanse our wounds and — in good time — help restore our wholeness.

source: Levine, S. (2005). Unattended sorrows: recovering from loss and reviving the heart. Rodale Press, pp. 38-39. image:


4 responses »

  1. from ~n~ who is training to be a nurse and prefers to remain anonymous:

    “Paradoxically, the one gift we can offer each other is our own woundedness. It connects us as humans, from heart to heart. May the words and gestures emerging from that place cleanse our wounds and — in good time — help restore our wholeness.”

    Thank you for what you wrote. I have gained a bit more distance on something that last night was so close. Too close.

    Perspective, being able to look at something in a new light has allowed better understanding – and some wound cleansing as well.

  2. Thank you for writing this post. I have recently lost my mother in a very sudden and unexpected death and this is precisely what I found I needed. Bearing witness to the process, and openness to support in the way that I needed and NO pressure.

  3. from the friend who started this conversation: Thank you!!


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