The Healing Power of Presence

Hurricane Harvey: Notes from the storm

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“Please remember, it is what you are that heals, not what you know.”  
~ Carl Jung


When I was going through training as a clinical social worker one of the psychiatrists that I trained with had a phrase he used to repeat all the time. He would say,
“Don’t just do something – sit there.”
The first few times I heard him say that I chuckled because it struck me as ludicrous – my colleagues and I were all highly trained mental health professionals with Master Degrees, PhDs, and MDs – why on earth would we waste time just sitting there when our patients needed us. As I gained perhaps a little more wisdom with experience I realized that people who are suffering need more than medicine, advice or even solutions to their problems – they need to be heard, understood and acknowledged.
My mentor was trying to teach us that when someone is in pain, part of what they need is your presence – to be a witness to their suffering. If we are too quick to pull out the prescription pad or provide them with practical advice on how to solve their problem we have missed an opportunity to be a witness to their suffering and acknowledge the human side of their problem or situation.
This lesson became more important when I was working with individuals with illnesses or conditions for which there was no “cure.”
As we all help one another along the road to recovery please try to remember that there will be times for action and, equally importantly, there will be times to quiet ourselves and just “sit there” and bear witness to suffering – to be a shoulder to cry on or to cry together for what was lost. Once that is done, there will be more energy and ample time to fill out FEMA forms, insurance claims and for the practical tasks of rebuilding.
Buildings can be repaired and re-built but people need healing –and healing is a process that is not done to someone but can only be done with someone.
It is important to remember that unlike someone’s temperature, blood pressure or heart rate – there are no easy ways to measure the size or magnitude of someone’s loss just by looking at them from a distance. When my mother died and we were closing up her house it turned out that the items that had the most “value” to my brothers and me were: a broken spoon, and a plastic water pitcher with a flamingo painted on the side. Neither of these items had any monetary value but they both had decades of memories of my mother using associated them.
When Harvey worked its way through Houston people lost many things – homes, cars, clothing – but it is important to remember that although insurance companies may be able to put a dollar value on these items, no one knows but the owner what the true meaning and value of each of these items were.
A simple handkerchief may have belonged to a loved one now long gone or a broken spoon may have been imbued with memories of a mother’s cooking for the family. This is why our presence is important in the healing process – I can look from the outside and estimate the financial impact of your loss but until I sit and listen I will never know the true meaning or value of those items to you.
So whether you are a doctor, nurse, therapist or are just a good neighbor – please remember there are times to put down your prescription pad, iPad or phone and simply pull up a chair and just listen.

“Listening is such a simple act. It requires us to be present, and that takes practice, but we don’t have to do anything else. We don’t have to advise, or coach, or sound wise. We just have to be willing to sit there and listen. “

~ Margaret J. Wheatley


If you appreciated this post, you may also want to read : The Dirty Side of Recovery


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