Unwrapping Presence – A Gift We All Can Give

Posted by Jason Princer, Chaplain

Unwrapping Presence – A Gift We All Can Give

I like to talk. I talk a lot. Many of my coworkers know this already. Sometimes I talk because I have something to say. Sometimes I talk to fill space and silence.

I like to listen. I listen a lot. I love to listen to the stories and the memories I am privileged to hear from patients, families, facility staff, caregivers, and my coworkers. Hopefully my coworkers would tell you I listen too. Hopefully.

What happens when there isn’t much to say? What happens when words fail us or simply cannot adequately express what is happening or what someone is feeling? And, if no one’s saying anything, what is there to listen to? This is a time for presence.

I read about and experience, across all disciplines, the providing of presence. Presence can be non-anxious, calm, affirming, quiet, listening, tactile, musical and demonstrated through myriad other modes and methods. To be present, simply, is to be. It is to be with another. To be fully present means that, in that moment, with that person or family, all my energy, all my attention is there. No phone, no email, no calendar, no squirrels of any kind.

Following a recent visit to a patient whom I have been seeing for a year and a half, I sat down and wrote what turned out to be a short poem reflecting on the visit. This patient has declined to the point where she often says little or nothing when I come. She will take my hand. She will smile her radiant smile. She will close her eyes, retreating into herself. We exchanged about three words when our paths last crossed. It was a beautiful visit. Here are the words I wrote:

I held her hand today

It’s all that I did

There wasn’t anything more to do

Or anything that needed to be said

She was sleeping when I came in

Resting peacefully, no signs of distress

I gently stroked her hand

She opened her eyes and smiled.

I believe it was a lovely and meaningful visit for her as well as for me. She smiled and waved as I left and I smiled and waved back. I left that facility believing that was exactly where I was supposed to be and I felt incredibly blessed, as if I had opened a present that was completely unexpected.

Throughout my 17 years of full time ministry, I've been asked many times, "What can I do?"  Well-meaning and deeply caring folks wanting to ‘do’ something for a friend or relative or fellow parishioner. In some cases, I can come up with a concrete, finite, specific, task for them to accomplish. Make a meal. Buy some gas. Rake a yard. Fix a car. Sometimes, on the other hand, I say, "Go and be with them." This can be more challenging for some than the tasks I mentioned because many of us are more comfortable doing then we are being.

Return, for a moment, to the poem above. Read the first stanza. We can read those words in quiet resignation, admitting defeat on the front lines of life and death. We can read those words in tired and futile efforts to ‘do’ something, anything, to make us feel like there have been good works done here. Or, we can read those words as a simple statement of truth and a reflection of our being fully present to another.

On another visit, I sat with a patient and his wife. It had been a tough morning for the patient. He had struggled for breath, which scared him, making the breath even more elusive than before. He was now non-responsive, non-verbal, and resting quietly despite some of the noise going on around him. His wife looked at him, reliving in her mind some of their years together, and, perhaps, asking how they had gotten to this point.

I wanted to talk. I was sure I had something to say. Something important. Something comforting. Something significant. And, yet, I remained silent. I held the patient’s hand and, occasionally, the gaze of his wife. We were quiet. We were present. We were being…together. Eventually I shared a prayer and some of those comforting words we carry around with us. Her first words to me were, "Thank you for the quiet, for just sitting with us and not saying a word."

I held their hands today

It’s all that I did

There wasn’t anything more to do

Or anything that needed to be said

It is my sincere hope and prayer that we can all be fully and truly present to those we serve, to our families, and to one another.

Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist, gives these encouraging words:

"When you love someone, the best thing you can offer is your presence.”


Comments (5)

  • Ray Wisbrock

    01 November 2017 at 00:22 | #

    Thanks for sharing this important information. Too often people seek out the perfect words to say when the reality is the best thing that can be done is to say nothing. I will be sharing this with friends


  • Corinne Kehrberg

    01 November 2017 at 11:37 | #

    This is so true. I'm grateful to Journey Care for their assistance during my mother's last week!


    • JourneyCare

      03 November 2017 at 16:55 | #

      Corinne, it was our privilege to care for your mother. Thank you.


  • Elizabeth Pannier

    01 November 2017 at 15:17 | #

    Thank you for these meaningful and important words. Nothing is more important that the shared presence of silence with one who is nearing transition between active life and the silence and unknown of the next stage of life. And no where is there a more sacred space than sharing the silence offered by the patient or friend that you are visiting at this point of life. It is indeed, a privilege to be sit in silence with those who wish to share that time with you, with me, with another. Thank you.


    • JourneyCare

      03 November 2017 at 16:54 | #

      We agree. Thank you so much for sharing, Elizabeth.


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