How to listen to a grieving person is a valuable life skill that can be learned.
“We’ve said our goodbyes to each other,” Janet choked the words out.
I turned to look at her 59-year-old husband Ted who was deeply sedated, but more at peace than he’d been a couple of days ago. Ted was in our hospice facility, dying from intestinal cancer.
Janet and I were sitting in their room, a box of Kleenex between us. She, sobbing through their life story; me, listening.
Ted had mere days to live in hospice care. Their thirty-two-year-old marriage was on the brink of death.
Janet had imagined a different life, but this is the one she got. As she shared the intimate details of their life with me, a total stranger, I offered the only thing I could: my sincere, undivided attention. I listened. I received. I observed.
It’s difficult, this art of listening. It doesn’t come easily. It has to be learned, mastered, a muscle that must be exercised regularly.
Most of us love to jump in and “fix” people’s problems. Fixing feels good. It feels like an achievement. We did something to make someone feel better. Conversely, listening feels passive. Just sitting there like a lump of clay, doing nothing. But you and I, we’re not lumps of clay. We’re living, breathing, feeling human beings. And giving someone our focussed attention is the greatest gift we can give.
How to listen to a grieving person, I am often asked. It was at a workshop that this truth hit me with the force of a two-by-four to the head. I finally got it. We offer advice (often unsolicited) because when we fix someone else’s problem, it makes the other feel good. When the other feels good, we feel good. So we fix because we don’t like feeling what the other is feeling i.e. sad, jealous, angry or defeated. That is why we don’t like “listening.” Nothing is happening to change anything when we simply listen. Or so we tell ourselves.
Wrong. A lot happens when we listen. The other feels heard, validated, befriended. No matter what, at the end of the day all we want to know is: “Do you hear me? Do you see me?” When we listen to someone, we offer both these gifts.
When faced with death and there’s nothing to fix, all you can do is listen. That is what I am called to do, in most situations, as a hospice volunteer. People I have never known, have no connection with, and will most likely never see again, tell me their deepest fears, bare their vulnerabilities, and spill their most intimate secrets. It is the most sacred connection, one that happens in the zone between life and imminent death. Two people connect as souls on an earthly journey. That’s who Janet and I were.
For forty minutes, she talked and cried and laughed as a collage of memories tumbled out of her. Ted’s raspy breaths in the background were a constant reminder of life’s finite timeframe.
“I hear you,” I said to Janet. Not because I knew her world or her culture or even her context. But I knew she was me, just in another form. She was me in Janet’s form.
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