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At a loss for words…practicing ‘Quiet Presence’ in hospice care

By Valerie Hartman

There have been moments in this work when I cannot find the words to console someone at life’s end.  Times occur when loved ones struggle to find the right words, and the beloved who is dying will also struggle to express the experience of their own dying.

I remember when my mother was sick, living everyday with serious illness. Our family surrounded her, each one of us playing a part in helping her through that difficult experience. We tried to do it in ways that were as natural as possible, focusing on our relationships rather than our new roles as family caregivers. There were emotional moments that overwhelmed her, she would cry in ways that I had never heard her cry before. I instinctively knew I could not understand her depth of sadness while at the same time, I knew what her sobs meant.

In time, we learned how to be with her. In her grief, we sat still, stayed together quietly, no judgment, no sugarcoating or fixing it. The quality of her sadness spoke her experience. We all hurt together. Although silent, we could have been having a conversation with words. My mother could’ve been saying, “I cannot bear to leave this life and all of you whom I love”.  Our response: “It is so hard to watch you suffer and grieve, and we love you so much we do not want you to hurt or to leave us”.

We could not always communicate verbally about the moments that made us feel estranged or helpless together, but we found ways of doing things everyday that had their own kind of language:

  • Placing her feet on a pillow to massage with lavender essential oil.
  • Watching ‘our’ movies together, laughing and crying over favorite scenes.
  • Picking a tiny vase of spring flowers for her breakfast table most mornings.

I relied on flowers, touch, laughter, music, movies, the family pets, aromatherapy, the sun streaming through the window, shells, visualizations of the beach, and everything warm and fuzzy as communication.

There is usually a time when “doing for” must shift to “being with”.  Reconsider:

  • “Being with” as an action
  • Quiet presence as a non-verbal form of communication between two people

My deepest loving memories shared with my mother, four years later, are the ones that were created as a result of humbly staying present in those painful silences.

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Thank you for writing this, it’s beautifully put. I had a similar experience with my wife. There was an understanding and meeting place for us that was wordless, but no less satisfying.

    April 5, 2012
  2. Lynn Piccoli #

    “Quiet presence” – How beautiful – Thank you,

    April 5, 2012
  3. Being with is a wonderful gift. Beautiful post.

    April 5, 2012
  4. Mr. Woods,
    Thank you too. A ‘wordless meeting place of understanding’, also described so well. Valerie

    April 5, 2012

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