The Magazine: Being with – the gift of attention

by Sheryll Shepard

“To listen another’s soul into a condition of disclosure and discovery may be almost the greatest service that any human being performs for another.”

            —Douglas Van Steere


Ciara Marcia, a dark-haired beautiful 10-year-old, sat on the footstool in the Hospice House family room. Her eyes stared blankly at the floor. I knelt down next to her. “You look very sad,” I said.  She replied, “I am, my grandma isn’t talking anymore.” Big tears rolled down her cheeks. I invited her to sit on the sofa with me so we could talk.


Ciara had wanted to see her grandmother one more time before she died, but in addition to feeling sad, she was shocked by what she saw. Only a few weeks earlier, during the holidays, her grandmother had been quite well. “She doesn’t even LOOK like my grandma now!” Ciara cried. Immediately I experienced a flashback in my own life. Years ago I too had been asked to visit my grandmother, whom I had not seen for some time and who was now residing in a nursing home. My grandmother, the most loving, accepting, wonderful woman I knew, lay in her bed, barely responsive, her nose now blue from lack of oxygen. I experienced a visceral reaction as the memory flashed before me. She didn’t look like my grandmother any more either. I knew something of this little girl’s experience.


Holding my own story in check, I continued listening to her feelings of sadness, recognizing and affirming the value of grandmother-granddaughter relationships. “Can you tell me what your grandmother was like?” I asked. Immediately she brightened and began to share stories of strawberry picking, tea parties, and how her grandma liked animals. With each story her brown eyes lit up and her smile broadened. At one point she returned to her sadness saying, “I know she wants to be with Jesus and I’m glad she will be too.” I inquired what she thought that place would be like for her grandmother. She brought back her smile, creating a vivid picture of someplace pink, because her grandma liked pink, with lots of strawberries and animals.


Then Ciara said, “I’m glad you believe in Jesus too,” and asked if she could tell me about her horse. It was a long story of a rescue horse that allowed her again to move in and out of her sadness and her joy about her grandmother. She continued her conversation about the special animals of their farm, acknowledging how sometimes cougars and foxes would come and kill things. Her reflections became the metaphor for her experience with her grandmother. Things which give us joy can get snatched away and change can happen quickly but we keep hope through our faith. Ciara understood this even at her tender age.


Ciara’s parents looked in on us occasionally as they came and went from grandma’s room. Eventually it was time to take Ciara home. As we parted company she gave me a tight hug. The shared interaction of being with had benefited of both of us. We blessed each other with our presence to what was past and what was present.


Psychologist Kent Hoffman talks about how we are all hard-wired to connect. Human beings need to connect with each other. Throughout our lives, the most fulfilling experiences come when someone cares and walks alongside us. Hoffman describes this being with as a “holding environment,” a safe place to share our deepest self without the other running away. When we enter into a relationship with someone who is grieving, the gift of being with is often all that is needed.


Healing becomes possible when we can offer the kind of listening that invites another to share the truth of his or her situation without taking it over. It is spiritual care; providing a safe place for the other to be open and vulnerable about what they are experiencing and feeling in the moment. It is a gift that requires a lot from us because mostly it means we have to be comfortable with silence. Being with requires that we withhold our own stories and invite only a few questions that allow the other to explore what is going on inside him- or herself. Sometimes this can become a form of growth and healing for the person sharing and the person listening. And that is the work of the soul.


“Don’t turn away.
Keep your gaze on
the bandaged place.
That’s where the
light enters you.”



Sheryll Shepard is a hospice chaplain in Spokane, WA.

Image: Girl Watering a Horse by David Burliuk

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