The Power of Presence

I took a picture of one of the prayer votive stands while visiting the Basilica of St. Lawrence in Asheville, North Carolina.

One of the most difficult things I’ve ever done was to “stand helplessly and give witness to another’s pain without turning away or ignoring it or trying to fix it.” I’ve had Pastoral Care training, but I couldn’t do anything for her. At the time I felt miserably stupid. I didn’t feel like I helped.  I thought maybe I failed as a friend, that I should have come up with some wisdom to be gleaned from the situation.

Later, I found out that my solid presence and my hug was all she had needed at the time.

It is a human tendency to want to fix everything, even as we know that the “control” we seem to possess is in actuality an illusion. But there are times we struggle to hold on to the illusion rather than face the harsh truth or reality that we need to face.

Barbara Mulvey Little’s article “A Ministry of Presence: Attending to Grief in a Season of Cheer” was assigned reading in my Spiritual Direction class. Attending to grief is something we will encounter at some time in our practice. Everyone, at one time or another, experiences grief.

Even wonderful celebrations such as a new promotion, a wedding or a move to a desired location carries elements of grief. Changes can cause excitement and new opportunity, but the unknown can carry with it anxiety and stress.  Many new couples may experience post wedding blues. With all the good in our lives, there are the gentle hues of sadness. This is normal.

Little’s article discussed one grieving client she had worked alongside. The woman was grieving because her infant child had died. After the child’s death, she had experienced a terrible pain in her arm. The pain plagued her. But one day, the grieving woman “was gardening [and when] she carried a potted plant that was about the weight of her baby who had died…the pain dissolved.”

This example gave me pause.

Of course, I recognized and have myself experienced pain in the body on account of grief. It made sense.

Not only that, but Little states the grieving mother “created weighted stuffed bears to give away to other mothers whose infants died.”

In the midst of her grief, she was able to create a ministry to help others as well.

When I am with a directee who is grieving, I will have to remember to ask: “Where are you holding your pain and sorrow?”

Grief is deeply personal and each person responds to their grief differently. Through my previous training, I try to do a check and balance with each individual who I know may be dealing with grief. Too much sleep, for example, could indicate depression and additional questions include saying the directee may wish to seek professional medical/mental health beyond my scope of spiritual direction may also be appropriate at this time). (*)

 Overindulgent eating or drinking could signify they are burying their feelings and “self -medicating” rather than dealing with the grief. On the other extreme, losing one’s appetite is relatively normal after a loss, but this as a continued habit could indicate someone is not taking care of themselves. (*)

Little’s article states isolation can be normal, but too much isolation can be a warning sign that a directee needs additional help.(*) Overall, patience, kindness and gentleness are incredibly important. You can assess their actions without judgement and remember that anger can be a companion to grief.  As the article mentions “active listening” to the directee is key.

There are times when all of us shall, as Little suggests, “give witness to another’s pain.”

And, as I have found out, we cannot try to fix it. Often words are not even needed.  But, often, it is just enough to be someone’s strong presence in the world. Something as simple as a stuffed bear can be that reminder they are not alone in their grief.

“This is another day, O Lord. I know not what it will bring
forth, but make me ready, Lord, for whatever it may be. If I
am to stand up, help me to stand bravely. If I am to sit still,
help me to sit quietly. If I am to lie low, help me to do it
patiently. And if I am to do nothing, let me do it gallantly.
Make these words more than words, and give me the Spirit
of Jesus. Amen.

The Book of Common Prayer, 1979

A few of my photos of my visit to the Basilica of St. Lawrence in Asheville, North Carolina:

For more information:

Barbara Mulvey Little’s website.

Wisdom Tree Collective’s website.

988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline

Basilica of St. Lawrence in Asheville, North Carolina.

*This is an opinion piece based on personal experiences. Seek a mental health professional or a physician for medical advice.

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