Companioning is about listening with the heart; it is not about analyzing with the head.
by Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.
“Listen and attend with the ear of your heart.” -Saint Benedict
Scientific analyses about grief and therapeutic theories surrounding interventions often result in caregivers overlooking the sacred art of listening with the heart. In fact, there are a multitude of invitations to use your head to assess, diagnose, and treat, which, by default, encourage you to stay distant from the heart.
Our language is replete with references to the heart that give testimony to our instinctual understanding of this part of our divinity and humanity: “Take heart;” “the heart of the matter;” and “home is where the heart is” are but a few of a multitude of references to the heart in our everyday conversations. We know deeply that authentic mourning is a quest for the healing of our broken hearts.
My years of learning from my own losses—as well as the losses of those who have trusted me to walk with them—have taught me that the path of the heart applies to both the mourner and the companion. Listening with the heart is anchored in the capacity to express compassion and understanding and to possess a deep desire to show solidarity with people experiencing grief. Nowhere are we hungrier for more heart-based, soul-centered models than in the area of grief care.
The Power of Open-Heartedness
The good news is that as companions we can do just that—minister to people in grief from a place of open-heartedness. However, you will have to remember to be a responsible rebel—to question assumptions, to work from this attitude. Why? Because like me, probably no one in your schooling told you, “Listen with your heart. Minister to others from a place of open-heartedness.” So, as I did, you may have to learn this on your own or seek out other responsible rebels as mentors.
I do believe we can set our intention toward being open-hearted and then make the time and effort to bring it about. First comes the internal decision: I will work from a place of open-heartedness. There are so many forces working against this today (e.g., managed care, brief therapies, evidence-based practices, a fast-paced culture, a lack of understanding of the role of hurt in healing) that it will not happen without that internal decision. In addition, the internal decision will likely have to be based on something that has genuine meaning to you: feeling nudged that this is the way to be present to your fellow human beings; being inspired by hearing someone talk about this way of being; or an innate desire that has always been a part of who you are.
In our search for ministry from a place of open-heartedness, I reflect on the importance of four critical ingredients: humility; unknowing; unconditional love; and what I have come to call a spiritual practice of “readiness to receive” a fellow human being. Allow me to explore each one of these with you.
Humility is grounded in realizing you are not an expert about grief. You are the student who is being taught by the true expert—the person in grief. Humility is also about a willingness to learn from your mistakes as well as an appreciation of your limitations and strengths. When you come from a place of humility, your behavior is welcoming, tolerant, and nonjudgmental. You come from a place of the open soul that is totally present, compassionate, and peace-filled.
Unknowing means being completely present to the mourner with an open mind and an open heart. This does mot mean an absence of thought, but, in contrast, a very clear attentiveness to the moment. Unknowing is not achieved by some conscious effort or technique but by letting go—giving up any need to be in control or manage someone’s grief journey. Unknowing guides our hearts to the path of our soul and creates a safe space for the griever to authentically mourn. The domain of the soul is where one can encounter what is most feared and open to what it might be tempting to close oneself off from. When we initiate helping from a place of unknowing, the full measure of our soul is available to reach out in support of those in grief.
The very essence of open-heartedness is the capacity to express unconditional love and acceptance of the mourner. Just as love is at the center of grief, love is also the core of compassionate caregiving. Unconditional love is the expression of the Divine flowing through you with no expectations attached.
Unconditional love creates a sacred safe space for the griever to authentically mourn. At the same time, this kind of love creates a sense of personal responsibility in the mourner. As a companion, you are responsible to the mourner, not for the mourner. Part of the paradox of communicating unconditional love is that it frees the mourner to do her work instead of you thinking it is something you do for her. Unconditional love creates a safe harbor to mourn, but it does not overprotect or hinder the freedom to mourn.
Unconditional love elevates your caregiving to the transpersonal realm of experience. Our open hearts are able to become pathways through which Divine love is expressed to the mourner. The companion relationship becomes sacred as it basks in the wisdom and healing powers of unconditional love.
Unconditional love puts you into a “flow-like” state of being. When you are in this flow experience, you are externally focused on the moment-to-moment needs of the mourner. The mourner can actually feel and experience your heartfelt compassion. To achieve flow, you must consciously cultivate your capacity to actively express love that is revealed at the soul level.
Over the years I have discovered the value of a spiritual practice I use to prepare my heart and soul to be present to mourners in ways that facilitate the expression of humility, unknowing, and unconditional love. I have come to refer to this practice as my “readiness to receive” ritual.
Just before I see anyone for support in their journey, I center myself in a quiet place, inside or outside the Center for Loss and Life Transition. By creating a sacred space and stepping away from the business of the day, I seek to find quietness and stillness. In a very real sense I’m preparing my soul to be totally present to the grieving person or family. This practice is a way of letting go of anything that might get in the way of my open-heartedness. I seem to need this time to listen to myself before I can listen to others.
Once I have gone quiet, I repeat a three-phrase mantra to myself. The three phrases are:
“No rewards for speed”
“Not attached to outcome”
These words help me slow down, recognize my role is to help create momentum for the griever to authentically mourn life losses, and to always remember the vital importance of being present to people where they are instead of where I might think they need to be. After repeating these phrases for two to three minutes, I usually conclude with some kind of affirmation like, “I thank the universe for providing me the opportunity to help people mourn well so they can go on to live well and love well.”
Obviously, your spiritual practice of readiness to receive a fellow human being may be different than mine. Yet, I do hope you consider some ritual that propels you to a place of open-heartedness. Yes, your open heart is a well of reception; it will be moved entirely by what it perceives. Then a beautiful process unfolds: Listening and responding from the heart, you are patiently empathetic to the needs of the mourner. She then begins to sense your belief, and, more important, her own belief, in her capacity to integrate the death of someone precious into her life. You are honored and privileged to be a small part of this journey.
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, www.centerforloss.com. 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 HERETenetsofCompanioning_24x36
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