Being a Witness to Someone Else’s Pain is Vital

In the great, raw, howling moments of pain; having a witness matters.

There have been many times where the only thing I can do is be a witness to profound pain. I don’t dismiss this as unimportant or as merely catharsis.

witness, coping with pain, understanding grief, helping with grief

When someone allows you to witness the depth of their pain, they are allowing a connection, in the midst of the worst. This is a big deal, especially if there exists any shred of shame. If someone’s child has died, no matter the facts, there is often a secret, hoarded shame that they’ve had a part in what happened.

Experiencing profound pain with so many people is etched into my memory, unlike so many other things in my life. Being there for someone else while they are grappling with loss, without the magic of literally doing something, is very difficult to learn. We want to jump up and make tea instead of looking into eyes filled with fears & pain.

I am very bad at casual conversation. I easily embrace great emotional turmoil without flinching, despite growing up in a WASP family saturated in a culture of tremendous emotional reserve.

Living with my mother’s silence about her own profound pain left me full of unanswered questions. I remember I was curious at 10 because I knew my grandmother had not loved her. I am grateful this curiosity lead me to pursue my career in psychotherapy.

There is not a shadow of a doubt within me, that my mother’s pain would have been different if she could have broken through her cultural restraints to release her pain. Without that opportunity she locked away parts of her heart.

Secrets & Shame rob people of their human connectedness.
Sharing is the path to ownership and more realistic evaluation. Taking responsibility has to allow for humanity, mistakes and forgiveness.

One of the hardest things we all have to live with is our own humanity.

It’s how we come to terms with our losses that leads to emotional survival. We are doomed to make mistakes as partners, in choosing boyfriends. We make mistakes and grow up at the expense of our friends and relatives.

We never stop making mistakes, we just get older & make less of them, if we’re open to the learning that is part of them.

Having a sibling or best friend to share mistakes with is very healing. You know you love somebody when you can share something shameful or do something shameful & continue to feel connected.

In the movie White Men Can’t Jump, Rosie Perez is in bed with Woody Harrelson. She say’s “Im thirsty!”. He gets one foot out of bed and she cries “Where are you going?”. He responds “I’m going to get you a glass of water.” “Why can’t you just be with me in my thirstiness?” she demands. He is completely perplexed by what she means.

It’s surprising how often “just” being a witness for someone else is remarkably healing.

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4 thoughts on “Being a Witness to Someone Else’s Pain is Vital

  1. Melinda says:

    I wish all of my nursing students would read this. Sometimes it’s tough to make time for witnessing someone’s emotional pain and yet nurses are often granted this opportunity and don’t know what to do with it. It took me years to learn how to be present with pain that I cannot fix. Now I use this knowledge to be with students when they fail a class or are experiencing a difficult life event. Age has its advantages.

  2. Denise says:

    Thank you for such an excellent post. I have had more than my share of grief on both sides, in addition to being a child of hoarders. Your thoughts on how important it is to be or have a witness to the grief or shame are spot on. Once I was able to give and receive this, the true healing began. Thank you for your contributions to others happiness and well-being.

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