by Charlene Thurston,RN,ANP,Hospice Director, from the Fall 1999 Hospice Currents Newsletter
At a conference recently, a speaker used a quote which I’ve always thought made an excellent point: “Don’t just do something, stand there!” While there is often much we can do to solve problems, and while trying to help others comes from the best of intentions, there are times when nothing we can say or do can take another’s suffering away. It is at times like these that the best we have to offer, which, by the way, is what’s needed most, is our personal presence, just our selves, and the courage to remain present when someone we care about is suffering.

People often come to us in Hospice to ask for help in talking with someone they care about who has had bad news, like the diagnosis of a fatal illness, or the death of a loved one. Even those of us who are human service professionals often have a hard time knowing what to say. Our first instinct is to want to take the pain away and make everything okay, and, when we have nothing to offer that can do that, we feel very uncomfortable, distressed, and powerless. There is an empty space, a void, and we are faced with a choice about how we’ll handle that. We can avoid the person and thus avoid the discomfort of a conversation. We can fill the space with meaningless clich├ęs that serve as filler conversation to pacify our own discomfort, but offer nothing useful to the other person, and, in fact, keep her from saying much. Or we can have the courage to reach out and stand with that person, despite the knowledge that we can’t fix anything. We can express our sorrow, convey our affection, invite her to talk, and truly listen, without judgment, just accepting where she is.

In a class which we recently presented to our volunteers, the four elements that were identified for communicating with people who are suffering were attention, acknowledgment, affection, and acceptance. Being compassionate means being willing to stand with others in their suffering. It includes being humble enough to accept that we will not have all the answers, and courageous enough to hang in there anyway.

Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D., described how Carl Rogers would approach a session in this way: “There is something I do before I start a session. I let myself know that I am enough. Not perfect. Perfect wouldn’t be enough. But that I am human, and that is enough.” Every one of us has the ability to help others. It takes no other credentials than just being human.

Funded by the Palliative & Supportive Care of Nantucket Foundation, the Palliative & Supportive Care Program is operated as a department of the Nantucket Cottage Hospital, which is an affiliate of Massachusetts General Hospital, and a member of Partners HealthCare. Palliative & Supportive Care of Nantucket is a specialized health care program dedicated to providing excellent physical, psychological, social, and spiritual care to persons with life-threatening illness and their families.

A Partnership in Caring

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