Witnessing profound pain is something I do every day. I’ve literally spent decades doing it. I’ve been at the hospital with rape victims, visiting women in prison, with children and adults who have been violently sexually abused and want no one to know who did it, with parents who’ve lost their children or their children are seriously ill, vets who’ve silently carried pain from war or those who are miserable for decades married to the wrong one. There is really no end to the list of sorrows I’ve witnessed. There will be no bottom to it until I close the doors to my practice and let no one else in. I’m lucky not to know what burnout is, and I do know that every story is unique. I am a vessel that holds many painful secrets for many honorable people, people of dignity, each a hero in their own way who have struggled to bear what’s unbearable.

I have to accept that many times I am powerless. All I can do is be a witness. I also know without any shadow of a doubt that being a witness can be enough. More than once someone has come in with a terrible secret exaggerated by a guilt that grew over years of silence. By at least bearing witness, I watch them leave my office knowing with certainty that someone else knows their terrible truth.

Pain requires experiencing things with terrible detail. An expert witness is someone who can listen to all the terrible details, to honor the story by knowing it. I read a blog by a widow of a soldier in the Iraq War titled “You’re Kidding.” She writes with a raw honesty about how stupid people are in their responses to her. Here is a link to her blog: http://caitspace.wordpress.com/2010/07/02/youre-kidding/ She is clear the death of her husband is not like going through the death of a dog, which too many people offer her, as reassurance. It is so hard for most people to just be available to the pain of someone else. They foolishly stumble around and fill the space with stories that don’t match up because they don’t know what else to do.

Allow the discomfort and silence, rather than filling the space up meaninglessly. I often ask people what the hardest part is for them on that particular day because I genuinely want to know, and understand every day is different.  A lot of pain is exacurbated by being too alone with it. I really respect Cait’s bravery in sharing the pain through her blog and comments on other blogs. Sometimes that’s all we can do, be there for their story and be careful not to shut them down with our own. The respect of listening to the details of another’s loss is an important and difficult gift to give.

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About the Rhoda Mills Sommer

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