After my dear schoolfriend Shellie’s father, my “Uncle Stan,” died, my gentle and deeply empathetic father — both men engineers — hesitated to go over to their house. “What will I say?” he stammered. He believed he would have to furnish to the family all of us loved the wisdom that would make it all disappear. I know his capacity for feeling the pain of others, and I suspect he likely also feared that he would have trouble containing their grief without breaking under its weight.
We perdure as at least 150,000 of our countrywomen and men have been lost to COVID-19, leaving behind perhaps 1.5 million Americans in profound grief, a rending of the soul made more violent by the public health limitations that make ordinary human comfort — gathering, hugging, weeping in each other’s arms — impossible. The fabric is not only torn, but gaping pieces that would take a master weaver to bring together have been wholly nipped out.
The healing we bring is so much simpler than my father saw as a looming apparition that kept his wrist taut as he gripped the doorknob. All it is, is the being with — not as the man or woman with answers, not even as the person who has anything at all to say, but as the person who can witness, hear, contain another’s suffering, and abide with it.
It looks like doing nothing. It’s anything but nothing. It’s the something of silently unfolding the landscape of our humanness as we are present with those who are suffering, especially in isolation right now, by stopping resisting that it’s awful, by managing our own presence so that those we care for can hear themselves, can not only get their story out, but, in a sense, tell themselves who they are and what is calling to them in this moment. Our ability to steady ourselves in quiet allows them to pick up that sound.
You are the presence within which they can know who they are right now. Yours is a vital role to play. You may not do it “right.” That’s because there are a thousand “rights.” (Sorry, Dad.) But by paying attention you will be refining your humanness as you, possibly silently, allow them to have profound contact with their own. You can close the door, get in the car, and be there quietly, socially distanced. You can phone and be there with disciplined attention, even if you can’t quite make out what they’re saying through their tears. Just be, and do that being, there. The deepest part of you, too, is the part beyond words. It really is going to take all of you — and all of us.