To Hear the Music of Another

“It’s just work,” he said, looking up at me from under sweat-misted brow.

I was staring at the boards, stacked one on top of another; each pried up, pulled with his gloved hands.

“Can’t you saw through them–make it a little easier? Would it work better with a crowbar, or maybe…”

I offered suggestions…there must be an easier way. It was hard to stand by and watch as he worked so hard.

My father-in-law blinked at me and smiled as if talking to a child.

“It’s just work, Laura. That’s all it is.”

His words come back to me now as I look down on this bed.

She seems so small.

Injured body curled around empty womb…seeking comfort there from her days of pain.

Yet, she works through.

“I’ll be all right,” she smiles weakly, unconvincingly.

So I walk down the hall, away from her room–sobered by her strength, humbled that I am allowed the privilege of entering into this pain.

It is hard to stand by and watch her work so hard.

And I wonder: what do I know of work?

What do I know of pushing through a pain, a hurt so deep it takes breath away, a pain so torturous there is nothing to compare it too…not a scratch, not a bruise–but cavernous loss that leaves one with limited choices?

Give up.

Or go on.

“I was sitting right beside her in the seminar. I hadn’t seen her for so long and I…I just asked how her family was and she became very quiet.”

Tears well in my friend’s eyes as she relates this story.

“Laura, she lost her daughter. Fifteen years old. And here I am sitting beside her…”

She lifts her hands in a gesture that says it all.

How?

How does a mother work through that?

Yet, we go on. Pretend we’re okay. Because to admit otherwise would be unthinkable. It would disrupt lives, break rhythms.

Life goes on, after all.

And we walk around with hurt so devastating that to go on we must cease to feel.

And it is work.

It’s work to breathe in and breathe out when we feel as if we are dying inside. Carrying burdens that life never prepared us for.

How?

How does the human spirit recover from devastating loss? And how do I–as a mental health professional–better help? What do I have to offer someone who has lost his leg, someone who is paralyzed from the neck down? Someone who has lost a husband through change in personality from a traumatic brain injury?

Grief may be brought on by any of these circumstances. They all describe a death of sorts.

This—grief, bereavement—was the topic of a moving conference I attended on Friday. The presenters: Ravi Isaiah, D. Min., LPC–Director of Pastoral Care for our hospital system– and Linda Cooper, RN-CS, MSN, LPC–hospice worker, bereavement counselor, adjunct faculty WVU School of Medicine.

Together, these two individuals have held the hands of countless others as they pass from this life. This alone brings me to my knees.

They shared their knowledge. Gave us these bits of wisdom and compassion…helped to mold us into better counselors, better people.

“When you are dancing with another,” says Ravi, “whose music do you hear? Whose music do you listen to when you think you are helping someone else? We misstep when we listen to different music.”

We let our discomfort discount their sorrow. Without intending to, we send the message that this grief reaction is wrong. We listen to different music. And we stumble.

When we are faced with raw grief in another, he says, we often try to “pat it down”. “There, there,” he says, gesturing as if patting a shoulder.

“Just be with them,” he says. “This is what matters.”

Linda spoke of countertransference, and how our “stuff” can make us miss an opportunity to comfort. We have to deal with our “stuff” first, she says. Know yourself. This is invaluable when counseling others.

“When we are not comfortable—they in fact, become alone—even though we are there…” she says. And then she echoes what Ravi said earlier, “Trust in the resilience of the human spirit. Don’t feel you have to fix. You don’t even have to touch someone to be with them. Hold them with your eyes. Just be with them.”

In other words, it is their work to do.

Sometimes, it’s just work. Lifelong work. Hard work.

But their work to do.

I am learning how to dance—how to hold someone with my eyes. I have learned these things before…I am no stranger to grief. But for some reason, these things I must learn over and over. They are not comfortable, no matter how many times I try them on.

I dip my toes in this river called Loss, slowly plant both feet below the surface. I am standing up to my ankles, Lord. Every once in a while, I dip at the knees and scoop Your Love into my cup. It helps me to dance. Then a wave crashes over, exhilarating momentarily…but then, as tide pulls…I am left still standing up to my ankles, empty cup in hand. Help me to plunge in, Lord.

To do this hard work of Grief.

Comments

  1. says

    “When we are not comfortable—they in fact, become alone—even though we are there…”

    Amazing wisdom. Looking back at response to my hardest moments in life. The people that left me feeling fed and held were those who grieved with the grieving.

  2. says

    Oh Laura,
    So powerful. It’s so hard to know how to come alongside someone. People have done it for me, yet I find it so hard to do at times for others. Hard to know how to just “be” there.

    Yet having experienced loss, maybe not of loved ones, but of other things, trust, mental health, innocence, and having had to deal with the grief of traumas inflicted upon me, esp. in college, I have a basis to come alongside someone else and understand….

    God has given me the gift of empathy, and only now am i starting to realize it, and actually embrace it and use it. Very hard, and very draining.

    Oh God, fill my little cup so that I have something to pour into others…

    Love you,
    Heather

  3. says

    No stranger to grief, myself. My own, or having to respond to the grief of others. Sometimes, I have grieved well, other times, I have grieved selfishly.
    Does it ever become easier? I don’t think so. Just letting God fill me up with the right stuff at the right time…I can do nothing else.
    This says it for me,
    “it is their work to do. Sometimes, it’s just work. Lifelong work. Hard work. But their work to do. I am learning how to dance—how to hold someone with my eyes.”
    If it is my work, or someone else’s, the work only belongs to the one who is doing it. The other’s are just there to hold…even if only with their eyes.
    I love it.

  4. says

    It is true that we are all uncomfortable with another’s grief. For me, I think the problem is I always want to offer something that will instantly make everything better.
    I only really know my own grief and know that it was something I had to walk through – do the work as you say Laura.
    In the beginning not even the Lord offered the comfort I sought. I just wanted it to all go away and be the way it was before.
    Knowing others were praying when I couldn’t, being able to just talk it through with a friend who offered a listening heart and no pat answers. But in the end I had to work it through myself, work my way back to surrender and trust in Him. I don’t know how you do it without Him. I think He uses wise, compassionate people like you to be His eyes and hands and ears for a while – until we can reach out to Him ourselves.
    So beautifully written Laura. I do love your writing and your heart.

  5. says

    Laura,

    wow! dealing with our stuff, holding another with our eyes, listening to the music of another (even if it’s not our favorite). you’ve covered so much here. i pray you recover mentally from the seminar. sounds like great stuff. can’t wait to hear more, friend.

  6. says

    Wow, you always write to the deep places of the heart. I’m so thankful you are who you are and where you are. I’m a better person because you work.

    Thank you, Laura.

    Love your tender heart.

  7. says

    God has placed me on this type of a path…and it is a hard one, but to continue the course with a new found friend as she walks out her own grieving. Lord, show me the way to help and to listen. Lovingly, Yolanda

  8. says

    Beautiful… I wish I had known you when I was living my own loss. But then, that was for me and Him then. What He gave me was the ears to hear your music. It was worth the heart-pain, I think.

    I hope you don’t mind; I am linking to your post from my own blog.

  9. says

    Excellent post. We often don’t know what to say to people who are grieving, so your advice here is helpful: just be with them. Don’t minimize their pain, but don’t ignore it either. Just be there. Very helpful.

  10. says

    I wish eyes and dancing music for you always Laura.
    This was my favourite post of yours.
    Even here where I am you have comforted me.
    I feel your soul and heart where others around me are not.
    I know you have blessed so many souls at work or elsewhere.
    Praying for you in this always.
    Love love love you

  11. says

    I paid such close attention to this post Laura. I read it through three times. I always feel like I have no idea what to say to people when they are hurting or grieving. And, yes, I feel uncomfortable because of that. I usually do not offer any words because I know that they really do not help and can sometimes really hurt even more. I love what you wrote about just holding them with our eyes and be with them. I have always known that I can not fix them so I never tried to pretend to, but it also kept me from reaching out much at all. I have been changed a little after reading this today. Just being present and accepting, holding them with my eyes and my own presence can make them feel cared for and loved while they work through their stuff is something that I can do. Thanks for this Laura. I have been enlightened with wisdom today,
    Christy

  12. says

    I am learning this lesson as I go. We are starting a women’s ministry at my church, and I am to lead it. I have been trained to listen. Trained to listen though to hear a lie…that’s what I do for a living, but here I’m learning to listen to the hearts of women who stop by my shabby little office and just need a place to unload.

    Thanks for sharing this, Laura.

    Kristy

  13. says

    Holding, with eyes, words, or presence, are all what one needs when working through grief. I am grateful for those who have become uncomfortable to comfort me when I have worked through loss. Deep thoughts from a deep soul. Thanks.

  14. says

    Laura,

    It’s just work, will stay with me forever.
    Holding someone with your eyes,… will stay with me forever.

    Grieving is so painful and the ache… like no other ache. I have a friend right now, who came to my mind as I read your post. She suffers from deep sadness and depression,and sorrow, and can’t wait to go “home.” ~Reading through your comments, I see many people have others who are experiencing this pain. May the Lord wrap His love around them and give comfort.

  15. says

    Loss is a difficult reckoning whether through death or any other type of “diminishment” that brings us to our knees in tremendous grief. I’ve walked many a road with many a families, participating in a dance I’d rather sit out. Still and yet, I’ve learned so much about life because of the dance of grief. I have a feeling you are well-suited for this one, friend.

    Your heart has been fashioned to hold such pain, and that is a gift to all of humanity. It would be easier to pass it on to another, but in doing so, you would miss an important facet of your becoming.

    You are a beautiful conduit of God’s grace and blessing to others. May his strength and guiding wisdom be your portion as you join in the dance.

    peace~elaine

  16. says

    Oh Laura,
    as usual you have really touched me with your beautiful words …. If I had read this last year I don’t think I would have been able to fully grasp it …. yet I read it today and I do. “its just work” yes but some work is just so, so hard! What a blessing to have someone come alongside as you labor. Thank you for this post … I imagine the Father will use it in someone’s life. Someone who, maybe before had no idea of what to do when really all that is needed is to just “be”. I’m so glad He brought you into my life, I’m the richer for it.

    Love,
    Tina

  17. says

    It’s easier to “do” something. To say something or offer help in some way makes us feel better, but what you say is true. It’s sometimes best to just “be” with someone who is grieving. To be fully present. Engaging with your eyes and heart.

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