How Your Presence Adds Comfort to Those in Grief
“The Art of Presence”, a column by New York Times columnist David Brooks, seemed so wise I wanted to share this with you. Because deep trauma often leaves others unsure on how to respond, this beautifully reinforces that families are usually grateful for all acts of kindness in the long pilgrimage of loss. Brooks shares the story of the Woodiwiss family who lost their 27-year-old daughter, Anna, who died in Afghanistan after being thrown from a horse. Five years later, their other daughter Catherine suffered severe and debilitating injuries in a bike accident.
Hope this encourages you to trust your instincts on the importance of staying connected to friends and family during times when life feels very fragile.
THE NEW YORK TIMES
The Opinion Pages|OP-ED COLUMNIST
The Art of Presence
by David Brooks – January 20, 2014
Tragedy has twice visited the Woodiwiss family. In 2008, Anna Woodiwiss, then 27, was working for a service organization in Afghanistan. On April 1, she went horseback riding and was thrown, dying from her injuries. In 2013, her younger sister Catherine, then 26, was biking to work from her home in Washington. She was hit by a car and her face was severely smashed up. She has endured and will continue to endure a series of operations. For a time, she breathed and ate through a tube, unable to speak. The recovery is slow.The victims of trauma, she writes in a remarkable blog post for Sojourners, experience days “when you feel like a quivering, cowardly shell of yourself, when despair yawns as a terrible chasm, when fear paralyzes any chance for pleasure. This is just a fight that has to be won, over and over and over again.”
Her mother, Mary, talks about the deep organic grief that a parent feels when they have lost one child and seen another badly injured, a pain felt in bones and fiber.
But suffering is a teacher. And, among other things, the Woodiwisses drew a few lessons, which at least apply to their own experience, about how those of us outside the zone of trauma might better communicate with those inside the zone. There are no uniformly right responses, but their collective wisdom, some of it contained in Catherine’s Sojourners piece, is quite useful:
Do be there. Some people think that those who experience trauma need space to sort things through. Assume the opposite. Most people need presence. The Woodiwisses say they were awed after each tragedy by the number of people, many of whom had been mere acquaintances, who showed up and offered love, from across the nation and the continents. They were also disoriented by a number of close friends who simply weren’t there, who were afraid or too busy.
Anna and Catherine’s father, Ashley, says he could detect no pattern to help predict who would step up and provide the ministry of presence and who would fumble. Neither age, experience nor personal belief correlated with sensitivity and love.
Don’t compare, ever. Don’t say, “I understand what it’s like to lose a child. My dog died, and that was hard, too.” Even if the comparison seems more germane, don’t make it. Each trauma should be respected in its uniqueness. Each story should be heard attentively as its own thing. “From the inside,” Catherine writes, comparisons “sting as clueless, careless, or just plain false.”
Do bring soup. The non-verbal expressions of love are as healing as eloquence. When Mary was living with Catherine during her recovery, some young friend noticed she didn’t have a bathmat. He went to Target and got a bathmat. Mary says she will never forget that.
Do not say “you’ll get over it.” “There is no such thing as ‘getting over it,’ ” Catherine writes, “A major disruption leaves a new normal in its wake. There is no ‘back to the old me.’
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