There are times in life when the highest honor, the greatest love is paid to another by simply bearing witness to his or her experience. Bearing witness is largely nonverbal. It is the choice to give the gift of a pure expression of love and respect — being a compassionate observer to the unfolding of another person’s life or a particular moment or event. In a really good marriage, two people bear witness to the fullness of one another’s life experiences — in good times and bad.
When we bear witness, we lovingly give our attention to the other without judgment. We comfort without smothering. We play a supporting role — powerfully upholding the other starring in his or her life. It is not about us. It is about them. Yet, we make a profound decision when we do not try to fix their pain and suffering or share in their experience by telling how we had a similar experience. Bearing witness says, “You are not alone. I see you. I witness what you are experiencing. What you are experiencing matters to me. I surround you with my love.”
As a life coach and grief counselor, one of the primary things I do for my clients is to simply provide a safe space for them to speak their truth — to reveal what they think and feel about their own life. So much of our lives are spent with hidden truths because there is no time or because we don’t want to be a burden or to be judged, or do not feel safe to share. So, we keep our truth to ourselves and often feel very alone as a result. When we allow another to bear witness to us, we give ourselves the freedom to be known. Somehow, it’s like having your passport stamped to say that you went to this country or that. Having someone bear witness to your reality behind all the social masks we wear is a profound form of validation.
When someone we love is hurting or dying, it is easy to feel helpless and to want to somehow end the suffering by fixing the situation. Alternatively, some of us unload our own fears, telling the one whose suffering has provoked our fears how upset and afraid we are about what is happening to them. This can cause added stress and put them in the position of trying to comfort us when they are the ones in need of our comfort. These are often the times that call us to a higher response — to simply bear witness to another person’s life journey — not to engage in it, but to stand beside them in loving support. The focus is not to make the pain go away, but rather to let that person know that they are not alone and that we trust them to do whatever it is they need to do to go through that particular experience. Sometimes, this is best done in silence.
One of the very best examples I have ever seen of the profound support we can offer to each other through bearing witness is the final chapter of “Not Like My Mother” by Irene Tomkinson. I had the privilege of meeting Irene this past weekend and having her read this chapter to me. It shares the inner experience of a mother sitting beside her daughter in a doctor’s waiting room. The daughter has come to have a clinical abortion of the deceased fetus in her womb.
I am currently in the process of bearing witness to my dear friend Roy who had colon cancer surgery about a year ago and has been under hospice care ever since. He has been one of my greatest teachers of the wisdom of life. He doesn’t judge others for making choices that he wouldn’t make. He simply says, “it’s different.” He doesn’t seem to judge his failing health either. He is going along for the ride in full cooperation. I visit Roy once or twice a week and at first I kept trying to figure out what my role was. Other than his family, caregivers and hospice team, I think I am his only visitor. I became aware of the fact that I was ill at ease at first — I didn’t know what to do. I tried too hard to put a smile on his face, to share memories with him, to entertain him. It was a relief for me when he wanted me to read to him because at least I had something specific and tangible I could do. Eventually, I learned how to just be with him. The act of showing up, looking in his eyes and stroking his head or holding his hand is how I bear witness to him. Sometimes I just sit and silently pray for him while he sleeps. I think that is the best thing I can do for him. I learned to get myself out of the way. I am bearing witness to the end of his life. Sometimes just showing up says it all.
For those of you who struggle with going to see a sick or dying friend or relative because you just don’t know what to say or do, try just showing up and bearing witness. Often, it is our own discomfort and the feeling of helplessness that we are avoiding by not going into these situations. Sometimes we forget that our job is not to fix the situation at hand, but rather to help lift the burden of the other person by letting them know we care enough to show up. In good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, it is important that we show up for each other.
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