The Silence Of Attention

Have you ever heard the wonderful silence just before the dawn? Or the quiet and calm just as a storm ends? Or perhaps you know the silence when you haven’t the answer to a question you’ve been asked, or the hush of a country road at night, or the expectant pause of a room full of people when someone is just about to speak, or, most beautiful of all, the moment after the door closes and you’re alone in the whole house? Each one is different, you know, and all very beautiful if you listen carefully. Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth

I never realized how silent grief is. How quietly we express it. How easy it is to miss the signs of loss. A turned head can hide it all – the tears in a grieving momma’s eyes, the pain on a widow’s face, the quivering lip of a child whose sibling and best friend has just died.

For all our talk about the need to express grief more openly, share it, acknowledge it, “get it all out,” in the end, we do most of our grieving alone. It’s not possible to match our moods, emotions, needs, highs or lows with those of another person, no matter how close we are. Our grief is as unique as our relationship with the deceased, as distinct as our fingerprints.

Grieving is the hardest work we do as humans. It requires our attention, focus and time. It cannot be rushed. It cannot be compressed. It cannot be avoided, pushed to the side, skipped over or denied. We might defer the work but the need to face our pain remains.

Words are powerful. They can soothe. They can comfort. They can create understanding and make us feel less alone. But they can’t bring back my dead son or your dead husband which is one reason we feel so powerless in the face of loss. We want to fix the fixable. Surely, it’s possible, if we could just find the right words .. What no one tells us is how powerful silence is. To sit with the broken, to witness the pain, to acknowledge all that has been lost without platitudes, repairs or bright siding.

My wisest people knew there was no right thing to say, no magic words. Instead, they showed up and embraced the silence on the days I couldn’t talk. When they did speak, it was to reassure me that they wouldn’t grow weary, abandon me or look away. They expressed no expectations about a timetable of improvement or what my healing should look like. It made us even closer, as I learned that only those who are truly comfortable with each other can sit together without speaking.

The silence of attention is rich, spacious, holy. When delivered with love, silence creates space for us or someone we love to rage, sob, despair. That proffered quiet, that gift of grace makes room for the full magnitude of what’s been lost, without judgment or minimizing. It requires no explanations, no “at leasts,” no “it could have been worse.” In the quiet, there’s space for the messiness, the unfairness and any and every emotion. There’s an opportunity to process, to seek to understand, to begin to heal, to connect with another human. To know that you are not alone. To discover that no matter how scary or loud or raw or untamed your grief is, your friend or family member won’t look away or walk away. No matter how uncomfortable the silence is, your loved one will sit there quietly with you, holding your hand, witnessing your pain, waiting patiently to help you up when you’re ready to stand.

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