The Gift of Presence in Times of Pain


I had no idea learning to sit with people in their pain would help me learn how to deal with my own.

I remember the first time I walked into the hospital room of a fellow survivor. I didn't know her very well at all. We received treatment at the same facility and were both part of the same group. She was going through a difficult time and I went to see her on behalf of one of the other group leaders. As this was uncharted territory for me, I felt apprehensive as I opened the door. I didn't realize this would be the first of many visits to many patients in the coming years.

As I popped my head in the room, I asked her how she was. I introduced myself to her husband and explained how we knew each other through the group. Then it came— the awkward silence. What to say? What to do? Hmmm…

There she lay, and there her husband sat as I stood. I found myself leaning and shifting my weight from one foot to the other. Then it happened— the thing that I will never forget. She reached her hand towards mine. I am not a “toucher” or a “hugger” for the most part. Yet, here was this woman, moving her hand on the bed towards mine, wanting me to hold her hand. I felt as though I was facing a battle inside my head at that moment. I was so uncomfortable with the thought of holding her hand. It was then I remembered. I considered. I thought about how many times people had said and done the wrong thing. In that light, holding her hand seemed easier than talking.

In times of deep stress, there are few words that matter and can touch us where we hurt. Yet, in those times, my brain always wants to find something to say. I have determined that my brain wants my mouth to move in order to distract my heart from feeling. I think it's because if my heart feels, then I know I must deal with what I'm feeling. Sometimes I don't like that. Other times I do. Standing in that room and holding her hand was the beginning of something I could have never seen coming. It was the beginning of learning how to sit with people in their pain. It was also the beginning of learning how to sit with my own pain—years of pain buried from a crazy-making childhood and many bad choices.

Since that day, I have been in many hospital rooms and some living rooms. One patient told me it made her feel good just to see another survivor walk into her room. Before that experience, I would have never thought that the mere presence of a fellow survivor could have such a profound effect.

I was nervous and uncomfortable going into her room that night. Her journey has ended and mine is still ongoing. I learned that presence is a gift that we can give to others. It is not a gift without cost. It has affected me deeply. I have learned things about myself and others. While cancer has done many things in my life, and in the lives of those around me, teaching me to sit in the pain of others, and my own past pain, was not anything I could have predicted. Sometimes blessings are found in the most unexpected places.

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