I am in America. I am astounded by how much I like it. This is quite unexpected. I will write about it another day.
I am in the lovely home of my high school friend, Barbara. She is sitting at the dining-room table with headphones on, working, even though it is the Fourth of July. Barbara works for a local company that provides home care and hospice services. She is one of my favourite people in the world. She is feisty and strong, but so, SO gentle and wise. I have her permission to share an email she sent me a couple of months ago, when I asked her how to create space to talk about death with the dying, without dictating the agenda. Please read this, even if you are not engaging with death. It can apply to talking to anyone who is in pain of any sort.
This is what she wrote.
I’m responding to you via email vs WhatsApp because the answer to your question is too big for a text. Hope that’s ok.
You asked about ‘creating space’. I hope I don’t sound too preachy. ‘Being’ with someone in pain, is something I have grown into. It’s a squirrelly thing. It can easily become slippery and awkward. In my work with the dying, I’ve learned that brushing off difficult conversations is horribly isolating for those who need them.
Regarding Sharon, it really depends on where she is, in her process. What is your intuitive sense?
From what you shared, it sounds like she still needs distraction, small talk. Initially, this is fine. It’s neither right or wrong. The news is fresh, and she probably hasn’t let it sink in yet. She has to guard her psyche. She may be resisting the space you want to create for her, for self-preservation. If the superficial chatter continues though, it might be helpful to simply state the obvious before you leave, “I know we talked about a lot of things, except the one thing that’s heavy on your heart. Please know, I’m not afraid of that conversation. I can be with you in those dark places.” That may be all she needs initially, just knowing you are out there. Open the door.
More importantly, going into any situation where there’s deep pain, means you have to be very comfortable with your own. There is nothing light-hearted, about dying, and as the living engaging with the dying, not reverting to the silver-lining can be pretty unnerving. You have to be ok with having no safety net. Deeply ok. People know when you aren’t. They will try to protect you, (actually they are protecting themselves from your discomfort.) If you aren’t comfortable with that deep, incurable pain, you have to just say it. State the obvious. Be vulnerable. Sharon is, she has no choice.
When I approach a family or patient who knows the end is close, I do my best to enter the room with my heart completely open. It takes some preparation because we can’t function in our world that open. However, it’s an extraordinary relief for both them and myself. The connection is vulnerability. It feels like the greatest gift I have to offer another, the courage and ability to connect with them during their most vulnerable time. The truth is, you and I don’t know how they feel, unless you know you will die soon too. But you have felt pain, deeply, and that is what you have to offer them in that moment.
So ultimately, your comfort with pain and vulnerability is the key to creating the space Sharon needs.
There are lots of video clips on similar ideas, but I can only talk of you my own experience with certainty. I’ll forward a few clips I did find meaningful.
I’m not sure if I answered your question, Kirsch. Death is isolating. Ultimately, we die alone, but being with someone in the in between moments is everything, and that goes a long, long way.