Editor’s note: The following article is based on true events. Names were changed to protect privacy.
People tell me things without words all the time. Like the family members of Ruth, who was dying in the hospital where I served as a chaplain.
Her family had visited as Ruth’s health deteriorated, but they couldn’t bring themselves to come back once she was actively dying. Through their silence, their absence, they told me, “We can’t be with Ruth as she dies. Will you?”
I stood by Ruth’s bed on a gloomy Friday afternoon, watching rain streak down the hospital windows. I sang to her and told her she was loved, that she wasn’t alone—that God and I were with her. I let my breath calm the errant thoughts in my mind. I watched her chest rise and fall, and studied her face.
I held Ruth’s hand gently but firmly. “You are loved. You are safe. It is OK to let go,” I said. Eventually her breathing slowed, then stopped. When I was sure she had died, I left to notify the nurse. I thanked God that she didn’t die alone. My prayers surrounded her, placing her in God’s care, and I was present with her.
Truly being present with another person is one of the best gifts we can offer each other. It’s daunting, consuming, holy work to quiet the chatter of our thoughts, to suppress our desire to run from pain or discomfort, to really sit with someone and bear witness to a moment in their life.
As a pastor and person of faith, I’m called to do this often.
When people ask me for prayer and advice, underneath these requests is a desire to feel heard and validated. People want to share their questions, hopes and fears. They want to know that these things—that they—matter. Everyone needs to lay down their worries and be heard by another human being.
One morning, I picked up my office phone to a tearful call from Carla. She was worried about her brother because his house had been robbed overnight. It was tempting to think of ways I could try to fix the situation, but there was nothing I could do and that is not what Carla needed most. She needed me to bear witness to this traumatic event in her beloved brother’s life, to hear that she wasn’t alone in her fear. Carla needed reassurance that God was at work in their lives since there weren’t easy solutions for where they would go
Most people are like Carla. They aren’t looking for answers. They want someone to sit with them in their anguish, as they wonder how they will go on. They are looking for assurance that they aren’t alone, for a compassionate companion. They are looking for connection.
Bearing witness to the stories and sacredness of another person’s life is the most important work I do as a pastor. I sit with a calm and open heart, listening for what people tell me with and without words.
The fear comes out in tears, in shaky, halting sentences. The hope comes out in the courage it takes for someone to share their story with me.
My hope is that as I listen, people will feel they are accepted, they matter and that I care about their story. More than that, I hope they walk away from our time together knowing their hearts and stories are heard and held by God.
God is calling us to hear and hold each other’s burdens and joys. We can’t fix or change anything, but when we offer our presence, acknowledging our neighbor’s humanity, that is enough.
When we dare to be present with and listen to others, we incarnate the deep, unconditional love God has for us. In return, we receive the gift of human connection and realize we aren’t so alone in our struggles.
Each time we sit with someone and honor the sacred story of their life, we honor the God who holds all our stories in love. We bear witness to each other, as God first and forever bears witness to us. We are held in love, and we are never alone.