By Bonnie Hutchinson
I didn’t know what to expect, knowing I was going to speak with a woman who lost her son to suicide two years ago.
I could not imagine that intensity of pain. She was talking about sadness.
“I’ve been to counselling and a mental health worker,” she said. “My mental health is fine. And I’m not depressed. But I am very sad. I have a lot to be sad about.” She said that without a trace of self-pity. It was simply an observation.
She’s a public figure in her community, and active on Facebook. She made a conscious decision to post what was happening–what she felt, what she thought, some of the surreal incidents that came in the months after her son’s death. She said, “I decided my son is too important for this to be private. My love for him is too important for this to be private.” She said other things too–things that only a person who has been tempered by intense pain and grief could say.
People have said, “I don’t know what to say.” Her advice: You don’t need to say anything except “I’m sorry this happened.” People have said, “I don’t know how I can help.” Her advice: You don’t need to do anything except just be there. “Nobody can fix this,” she says. “It’s not fixable. I know I’m going to be experiencing grief for the rest of my life.”
But people just being there–somehow that makes the unbearable bearable. A while ago she gathered up all the Facebook posts and put them into a book. The book is called, “Bearing Witness.”
Another story. A man in his sixties came to a chartered psychologist with an unusual request. He did not need or want any kind of counselling or advice. He wanted to speak out loud to another human being about what he had experienced in residential schools. He said, “I want someone to bear witness.”
They had three appointments at which he spoke of his experiences. The psychologist simply listened.
The psychologist is forever altered by hearing his experiences. The man is forever altered to have had someone “bear witness” to what had previously been unspeakable.
This is the stuff of grown-ups. No facile explanation; there is no explanation. No trite words of comfort; there is no comfort. No quick fixes; no fixes at all. This is not something that can be fixed.
Perhaps, just perhaps, what it behooves us grown-ups to do is to be with the pain–our own and other people’s. Simply acknowledge. Simply bear witness.
It’s not a fix and it’s not a solution. But it is a profound and courageous human gift. And maybe, just maybe, if we acknowledge and bear witness, to our own pain and others’ pain, we can perhaps move on.
This is something I have learned in more than seven decades: Unacknowledged pain does not go away. If we keep trying to suppress it, deny it or distract ourselves from it, it will begin to show up in other forms. Anger. Fear. Apathy. Physical illness. Depression. Despair. Cynicism. Blaming. But unacknowledged pain does not go away.
I have seen people weep, not with sadness but with relief, when someone says, “I’m sorry this happened. I’m sorry you had to experience this.”
When pain–our own or other people’s–is acknowledged, when someone will bear witness, the situation may not change but somehow the pain is easier to bear.
I have lived long enough to see that on the other side of pain, when pain is acknowledged, what often emerges is compassion. Compassion for ourselves and compassion for others.
Compassion changes everything. Compassion makes impossible things possible. Compassion can heal wounds and end wars. Compassion is good for the soul and good for the body. That is the gift of bearing witness.
I’d love to hear from you. If you have comments about this column or suggestions for future topics, send an email to Bonnie@BonnieHutchinson.com. I’ll happily reply within one business day.