The Power of Presence

This article is the third in our Caregiving Series looking at the challenges caregivers face, where they find support, and the advice and guidance they have for other caregivers. (Read the previous articles Caregiving—Challenges for the “Sandwich Generation” and Confessions of a Committed Caregiver)

Recently my husband attended a “10-13 party” for one of his co-workers.  For those  who don’t watch enough cop shows, “10-13” is the code police officers use when they are in trouble and need support.  This kind of gathering is routinely organized at the New York Police Department to support fellow officers when there is a difficulty in a family—a home lost to fire or weather, a costly illness, a sudden death.

As my husband was leaving for the event, he said to me, “I have no idea what to say to him.”  Talking about speaking to his friend with a child facing a grueling, life-threatening illness, my husband asked me, “Do I say, ‘I’m sorry’?  But she’s still alive.  Do I ask him how she is, when she might be doing worse?”

When someone is facing a difficult situation, providing concrete support is, like money, the easy part.  That’s something both my husband and his male co-worker would have understood. When it comes to offering emotional support, however, both men and women can feel stuck.  We often cover our awkwardness with vague offers, saying things like “If there is anything I can do, let me know,” or let loose with empty platitudes, like “Time heals all wounds.”  Many of us simply avoid people in pain, not to be intentionally mean, but to protect ourselves from the pain.

How to Help?

In a lovely op-ed in the New York Times called The Art of Presence, columnist David Brooks offers a primer on what to do and say when someone you know is suffering.  He borrows from the work of Catherine Woodiwiss, who writes a blog for Sojourners, and her family—who are no strangers to tragedy; after one child was lost to an accident, Catherine suffered a disfiguring accident herself.

The advice:

  • “Don’t compare, ever… Each trauma should be respected for its uniqueness.”
  • “Do bring soup” or whatever other things you know the person needs.
  • “Do not say, ‘you’ll get over it’ or ‘it’s all for the best.’”
  • “Do be a builder” rather than a “firefighter”—while firefighters are crucial in the throes of an emergency, it’s the builders who are there for the long haul.

The ICS Way

The aftermath of a trauma demands that each of us find a way to live in our “new normal.”  Many ICS members face that challenge. We have members who have recently experienced spinal cord injuries, changing their lives forever; who develop MS and must manage its frequent challenges; who face the cumulative effects of aging in diminished mental and/or physical ability.

Adapting to that new normal requires many changes in our member’ lives. That’s why one of the core values of our ICS Care System is to be flexible.  A member who loses a loved one may suddenly need more home care hours; another with a new diagnosis may require customized mobility equipment.  At ICS, we are adept at adjusting services and adding services as needed.

But besides being there with concrete services, ICS also provides presence, being there for our members to help them through the emotional challenges of their lives.  We do this with support groups and social activities.  We do it by matching members faced with a traumatic change in their life with someone who has faced a similar challenge, someone who has also been there.

Acceptance of a new normal is rarely a straight line.  It is much more likely to be a messy, erratic, two-steps-forward, two-steps-back process.  As a friend or relative, you may want to wrap it up faster than your loved one is ready.  As Brooks advises: “We have a tendency, especially in an achievement-oriented culture, to want to solve problems and repair brokenness — to propose, plan, fix, interpret, explain and solve. But what seems to be needed here is the art of presence — to perform tasks without trying to control or alter the elemental situation.”

As friends and relatives, learning to be present and not rush to fix things will continue to be a challenge for many of us. But building fluency in the language of support is a process that will help us all—caregivers, friends, families and survivors of tragic events alike.

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