Companioning Tenet Five: Bearing Witness

Companioning is about bearing witness to the struggle of others; it is not about judging or directing these struggles.

by Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.

“Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act caring, all of which have  the potential to turn a life around.”

Leo Buscaglia

Bearing witness to the struggles of someone experiencing the darkness of grief—having empathy—is the deepest form of emotional and spiritual interaction you can have with another human being. If you can hear another person’s words of pain and loss, not from a place of clinical distance but from a place of an open heart, then you can bring a fully alive human presence to bear on the other human being’s experiences. Overcoming any tendency to judge will allow you to be taught by the griever. This active empathy will naturally create an environment in which healing can and will occur.

Entering into and bearing witness to the anguish of raw grief can be overwhelming, for to actually be able to enter into another person’s experience so completely that she is able to feel your companionship is the embodiment of the highest degree of emotional and spiritual refinement. To truly join the mourner in the place of her helplessness requires that we as caregivers visit our own griefs and experience our transformed hearts.

Doing Your Own Work First

The supporting cradle of empathy evolves from the collage of feelings we have come to encounter in our own personal journeys into grief. You may find that if you haven’t felt a particular feeling, or if you are unwilling or unable to reencounter it, your capacity to be present to another person will be inhibited. You may even see the loss as something that has happened to “her” and not to “you” and thus lose your openness, your compassionate presence. Your empathy with her struggles will be a feeble attempt at embracing the feelings, not a truly empathetic experience.

That is why bearing witness to the struggle of those in grief is such a demanding ministry. You have to do your own work first to acquaint yourself in depth with your

Bearing Witness AfterTalk Grief Support
Parkland, Florida

soul-based emotions. Only then, because you have authentically felt, will you “know what it feels like.” You will have an anchor in your own soul for what a grief experience may feel like to a fellow human being. Since you have been there, you can enter into struggles such as discovering a reason to go on living, redefining one’s worldview, and searching for meaning in life and living.

A natural inhibition in the willingness to enter into the wilderness of grief is that we are often hesitant, or literally afraid, of reopening our own wounds. Instead of being able to companion a fellow struggler, we may be overwhelmed by the conscious recreation of our own painful feelings. So, instead of being open to the presence of the pain of the loss, we may deny people their experiences (“It could be worse”): we may problem-solve or technique people (“Here’s what to do so you can let go”); or we may minimize or compare experiences (“You think you have it bad? Let me tell you what happened to someone else”).

To be able to enter into the wilderness with a person in the depths of grief, therefore, requires the embracing of our own heartfelt emotions, not in the sense of mastering them, but in allowing them to flow through us. Then, and only then, are we able to give the most precious gift— our compassionate companionship.

Expressing Compassion

Bearing witness to the struggles of people in grief is about having compassion. Compassion is from the words cum pation, meaning “to suffer with,” “to undergo with,” “to share solidarity with.” Compassion embraces our common humanity, our feelings of togetherness, our experiences of kinship. This word compassion has been so much in exile in the mainstream grief counseling literature, yet it is the very essence of what bereaved people both need and deserve. While empathy refers to “feeling with” the grieving person; compassion is about “feeling for” the grieving person. You have to care for and about the person to be a soulful companion.

Actively expressing compassion through bearing witness to the struggles of others is by no means elitist.  Anyone and everyone can express compassion to someone encountering grief. You don’t have to have a college degree to express compassion. You don’t have to be a certified grief counselor to express compassion. You only need to have a heart full of grace and a soul anchored in love.

Bearing Witness Means Being Involved in the Feeling World

Bearing witness to the struggle of the griever is anchored in striving to understand the meaning of her experience from the inside out rather than imposing meaning on the experience from the outside in. Active empathy means the caregiver is attentively involved in a process of exploration. The companion is trying to grasp what it is like inside the soul—the life force—of the griever.

Bearing Witness AfterTalk Grief SupportEmpathetic responsiveness requires the ability to go beyond the surface and to become involved in the mourner’s feeling world, but always with an “as if” quality of taking another’s role without personally experiencing what the other person experiences. What is the inner flavor and what are the unique meanings that the person’s experience has for him or her? What is it that she is trying to express but can’t quite say in words?

This empathetic, “bearing witness” process is in contrast to both sympathy and identification. Sympathy is a feeling of concern for someone else without necessarily becoming involved in a close, helping relationship; it projects an “I feel sorry for you” attitude, but stops short of empathy. More destructive than sympathy is identification. This attitude is conveyed by those who submerge themselves with the griever and try to take on their feelings for them. These are people who make assumptions like, “I know just how you feel.” The last person the griever feels safe with are those who convey this attitude of over-identification.

Bearing Witness Means Going Beyond “I Know How You Feel”

Bearing witness from a place of active empathy is experienced when the mourner feels you understand. To simply say, “I understand how you feel” is not enough. Empathy is communicated when you, the companion, respond at the emotional, feeling level of the mourner. You reach the mourner where he is, being careful not to bring judgment or a need to get him to “let go” and “move on.” This dependable quality of empathy is what seems to free the mourner to open his heart and mourn from the inside out.

Bearing Witness Means Not Trying to “Fix Things”

The more you encourage the mourner to teach you from a position of concerned curiosity, the less you will feel any need to “fix things.” As you allow yourself to be taught, you are relieved of any burden to get people where you would like them to go. In other words, you are not attached to outcome.

The paradoxical aspect of this attitude is that the more you allow yourself to be taught and follow the mourner’s lead, the more integration of the loss seems to take place. At least this is a very real part of my experience and probably one of the greatest gifts I have discovered in my life’s work.

Bearing Witness Means Embracing Feelings of Loss

Observation suggests that some people who attempt to help grieving people hesitate to elicit and embrace feelings such as sadness, loneliness, anxiety and hurt, often fearing that the expression of these feelings at the least “won’t do any good,” or, at most, will “make matters worse.” However, experience suggests that such hesitation is a form of defensive protection for the caregiver who finds it threatening to respond at any true emotional-spiritual level to the mourner.

Just because feelings are threatening does not mean that we as companions should avoid encouraging their expression in the mourner. We should never avoid what a mourner feels because we fear she cannot take it. She is always taking it. The question is whether you will support her in experiencing it with your compassionate presence or only in the isolation of being alone with it. We could also reframe this to note: We as caregivers should never avoid what a mourner implicitly feels because we fear we cannot take it!

This article is excerpted from Dr. Alan Wolfelt’s book Companioning the Bereaved: A Soulful Guide for Caregivers, available at bookstores and at Dr. Wolfelt’s website, Dr. Wolfelt is an internationally  noted author, teacher and grief counselor. He serves as Director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition and is an educational consultant to funeral homes, hospices, hospitals, schools and a variety of community agencies across North America. If you’ve missed the previous Companioning Tenets, CLICK HERE

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