The art of presence.

As parents we lived through a hundred days of hospital visits after our teenage daughter broke her back and her neck. Some years later the same daughter spent a month in hospital with a life-threatening illness. In the face of such terrible suffering we no longer knew if we should fight to keep our daughter alive. Mercifully, she fully  recovered from both traumas and is a healthy and resilient young woman making an amazing contribution to the world. As parents, we went to hell and back. As a doctor, I was stripped naked; I no longer had any medicines or treatments to offer. We discovered that love was enough.

So we were touched by the opinion piece in the New York Times. David Brooks writes of the Woodiwiss family, who lost one daughter Anna to a horse-riding accident and almost lost a second Catherine to a car accident. Catherine writes,

 The victims of trauma experience days “when you feel like a quivering, cowardly shell of yourself, when despair yawns as a terrible chasm, when fear paralyzes any chance for pleasure. This is just a fight that has to be won, over and over and over again.”

Her mother, Mary, talks about the deep organic grief that a parent feels when they have lost one child and seen another badly injured, a pain felt in bones and fiber.

But suffering is a teacher. And, among other things, the Woodiwisses drew a few lessons, which at least apply to their own experience, about how those of us outside the zone of trauma might better communicate with those inside the zone. There are no uniformly right responses, but their collective wisdom, some of it contained in Catherine’s Sojourners piece, is quite useful.

David Brooks talks about the power of simple presence, among other lessons from this family’s trauma. Although offered as a guide to family and friends, our experience suggests that these are powerful lessons for health professionals too. Few can imagine the experience of a trauma victim and their suffering family. Here’s a practical and moving guide to offering support that helps.

Do be there. Some people think that those who experience trauma need space to sort things through. Assume the opposite. Most people need presence. The Woodiwisses say they were awed after each tragedy by the number of people, many of whom had been mere acquaintances, who showed up and offered love, from across the nation and the continents. They were also disoriented by a number of close friends who simply weren’t there, who were afraid or too busy.

Anna and Catherine’s father, Ashley, says he could detect no pattern to help predict who would step up and provide the ministry of presence and who would fumble. Neither age, experience nor personal belief correlated with sensitivity and love.

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Image: “Holding hands” from Huffington Post

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