17 Apr Witnessing
I don’t usually talk about my private life. However, the experience of living through the shock and the treatment process of my husband’s cancer helped me realize many important things. It truly brought my professional and personal life together. Therefore, I will share this writing here, and hopefully this sharing will inspire someone.
There was a particularly bad day. His whole person looked different. He looked like he was beaten up all over even though there were no bruises. He could barely talk or swallow anything, not even water, because of the pain in his throat and mouth. The day before, he described the pain in his mouth to me as “imagine the entire interior of your mouth was covered with cold sores and a thousand times more painful.” He was already on constant morphine and that day the dose went up higher. He became confused with time and what’s happening around him. Even though the nurses offered everything they had, he was still in great pain.
At that moment, all I wanted to do was to cry. All I wanted was to cry in someone’s quiet presence. I didn’t want to vent. I didn’t need an answer. I simply needed to let my tears flow, be with my sorrow while another human being hold me in his or her presence. I wished there was a number I could dial, no questions asked, no explanations needed, just cry.
Before, I often questioned my tears “Where did you come from?” “Why do you show up?” “Do you have a good reason to be here?” Then, I also tried to distract, delay, hide or discount my tears. However, when I watched my husband’s suffering, it became much easier for me to accept my tears. I no longer question, analyze, doubt, or push away my tears. I let them come and I give them space to be with me. This is one of the gifts my husband has given me through his illness – the capacity to be with my tears.
Narrative Therapy and many schools of working with trauma emphasize the importance of witnessing. For me, witnessing is the capacity to be with someone else’s tears. In face of human suffering, whether it’s personal or collective, we need other human beings as witnesses even though there is nothing they can do about the situation.
Witnessing is not fixing, problem-solving, patronizing or cheering. Witnessing is non-doing. Witnessing is being. Witnessing is to hold someone in our presence and to allow them experience what they experience.
I stayed by my husband that night. I meditated and lay down as comfortably as I could. There was nothing to do at night, not even Reiki or Therapeutic Touch. I had done it earlier that day, and it was time for both of us to be quiet and rest. The CT-scan person came in to take X-ray of his lung. The nurse came in to check on him every once in a while. The hustle and bustle quieted down at the early morning hours even in a busy 24 hour special unit. I knew he wasn’t sleeping. Neither was I. However, I just lay in the dark and let myself be there.
At four o’clock in the morning, he actually woke up and he looked much better. He was able to talk and asked me to put lotion on his back. He was able to get up, so we walked around the unit while everyone else was still sleeping. He hadn’t been able to walk for days so this was great news.
Before I went home, the nurse asked me if I had slept okay. I said I didn’t sleep, and he said “Why not?” I paused, and answered I wasn’t there to sleep. For the rest of the day, I thought about this from time to time and asked myself: “What was I doing then?” “Was I being helpful?” “Do other family members sleep?” In the evening, when I saw my husband again, I asked him if me staying there was helpful to him. He said it was.
Then, it dawned on me what I was there for: I was not there to sleep. I was there to witness. I was not able to make his pain go away as nobody could, but being a witness to his pain helped. It was hard to explain as it looked like I had done nothing. However, it was just like the moment when I was crying, all I wanted was a witness to my pain.
Living in a modern society, we have access to so many tools and different ways to offer help. From the advancement in medicine and technology, to the richness in everyday comfort, we have more materials, knowledge and skills to offer than ever. Yet, there is a limit. There are times when nothing can stop the pain or take the suffering away. Then, and sometimes only then, we remember our first and foremost gift to offer – our presence, our witnessing, our pure being.
May all people in face of suffering have someone bear witness for them.