Sitting with discomfort - a lost skill

A cemetery with the sun shining through the cross on a headstone, represents a place of difficulty, sadness, and grief

Earlier this month, I found out that the spouse of a colleague has been admitted to hospice in the final stages of brain cancer. This family has a mom, a dad, and two children, but one of them is about to cross into the beyond soon. I’ve been watching this unfold among those who know this family for many years. Most try to put on a smile and offer a ‘best wishes’ when they encounter one of these brave family members. They might exchange some small talk on a shared interest, but then move on. Some have taken the extra step to offer assistance with meals, running errands, and household chores.

What I don’t see is someone willing to go to hospice and sit with this family, to hold their hands, and to just create a space where they can feel the emotions that come up at this transition time. This time is full of sadness, of grief, of anger, and even of relief, of resolution, and of peace. All those emotions need to be felt and processed as the family moves through this transition. Fortunately, hospice workers are amazingly skilled at guiding families through the process. I am grateful for these willing people who are gifted at creating comfort around discomfort.

As a whole, we’re ill equipped to deal with discomfort. Death and dying are certainly among the most uncomfortable topics for all of us. It hasn’t always been that way, though. Not that long ago, in the Victorian era, families would picnic in the cemetery with departed loved ones. They would take post-mortem photographs with relatives to preserve their image for the future. They would sit with the dying and with the dead to ensure the transition was full of support and of caring. It was considered a normal part of daily life – something to be expected.

Perhaps this shift is a result of the relative infrequency of death compared to earlier times. Children and young people used to die with much greater frequency than in modern times because of advancements in medical treatments. Maybe it is a fear of what happens next, so we deny anything related to death. For some, it may be a sense that someone else will take care of things – an ‘outsourcing’ of death, if you will.

Whatever the reason, it has left us with a void in our ability to be present for each other. It’s left us feeling disconnected and helpless when another is suffering. It’s left us feeling more disconnected and afraid than ever.

Holding space isn’t hard, but it does require you to be careful in paying attention. Start with holding space for yourself. When negative self-talk or a strong emotion comes up, acknowledge that you feel that way. Don’t judge it, try to avoid it, or change it. Just witness that the feeling happens. Sometimes simply giving language to a feeling – say the feeling out loud – can make it dissipate and resolve. If you need to, allow yourself to scream, cry, or smash a pillow. And know that all of that is perfectly okay. And more than that, it is exactly what you should be feeling.

You can also hold space for others in the same way. You need not fix anything, offer advice, or speak words of comfort. Your silence, non-judgement, and simply paying attention with care and love are all that is needed to create a sacred space for another to process their struggles. There is little more intimate than being able to allow another human to simply experience their feelings and work through them in the caring support of another.

One of the most wonderful relationships for holding space is that between a parent and child. Children are still learning how to process their feelings and learning to understand and describe them. Perhaps, instead of encouraging your child to ‘be strong’ or to ‘let it go,’ you can instead give them language to describe their feelings, give them time to express them in a space that is safe, and guide them with gentle questions toward releasing the emotion.

I hope that the next time you encounter an uncomfortable situation that you can acknowledge another’s hurt, fear, or anxiety and just let them know that their feeling is perfectly okay and that you fully accept and love them. And it is crucial that you actually do fully accept and love them.