By Mary McPhail Gray
NVW Board Chair
You asked, “How are you doing?”
As I told you, tears came to my eyes—and you looked away and quickly began to talk again. All the attention you had given me drained away. -Kelly Osmont
Who among us has known grief and also had the experience of feeling alone in the company of others—even close friends and family?
We are a people who know it is important to be polite—to ask after other’s troubles—but are we really prepared to truly listen?
Now the holiday season is upon us, with gatherings of friends and family, and invariably, some of those present with be dealing with tragedies or sorrows. Giving respect and attention to others who have deep pain requires us to be deliberate about our attention.
But aren’t we supposed to be joyfully celebrating at this time?
One of the dilemmas of holidays is that celebrations with a familiar theme bring up memories of the same holiday in a different year—a different time—when joy might have been abundant. And what if this year it is not—and for very good reasons? Then our expectations about the feelings of some holidays can lead us to be disappointed.
Individuals may not have had experiences with handling grief in others—especially if they view sorrow or grief as something to ignore or “fix.” As a child whose mother died when I was 2 years old, I gradually came to understand that it was never appropriate to talk about my mother—especially since I could speak very few words at that age. But it was clear that if anyone mentioned my mother to me—sharing a memory or noting that I looked a great deal like her—they would then feel embarrassed and look away or glance with guilt at my father. Such scenes were more common around holidays when friends and relatives gathered who were not in frequent contact.
Often the close crowded quarters around family/friend holiday celebrations may mean that someone who really needs to talk about their life stressors cannot find a listening ear. But having authentic meaningful conversations is somewhat rare in all of our lives. Whether it is a family member, a friend or even a clerk in a store—we watch our iPhones and let mundane tasks take over immediate interaction—and we are left standing alone.
Maya Angelou—the noted poet, memoirist, and civil rights activist—observed that there are four haunting questions that run through our daily interactions with anyone:
- Do you see me?
- Do you care that I am here?
- Am I enough for you or do you need me to be better in some way?
- Can I tell that I’m special to you by the way you look at me?
Answering these four questions positively means really being present—and that starts with simply looking at another person—focused enough to really SEE them. And when you look deeply, you may see pain and tears, but you are giving them a chance to be honest and relieve some of their pain in order to begin to feel joy again.
Someone in deep sorrow needs to be heard authentically without the need to give advice unless asked. Affirming their life and value to you flows out of you just being there. You may need to take a walk or find a quiet corner to deliberately say, “I care about you and your story is important to me.” And perhaps this is the greatest gift we can give to each other.
Nonviolence Works has the largest staff of licensed behavioral mental health providers in northern New Mexico. Need Help? Contact us at 575-758-4297 or on line at www.nonviolenceworks.us Referrals can be made directly from the ‘counseling referral’ button on our website menu bar
Mary McPhail Gray is the Board Chair of NVW and can be reached at 575-779-3126 or firstname.lastname@example.org