A few years ago, I did a project with a group of nurses where we explored the “essence” of nursing, what makes a good nurse. “Nurses stay when they want to go,” reflected one of the leaders. “Nurses are there with people in their worst pain, and anger, and breaking down of their bodies, and facing the things no one wants to face.”
I’ve pondered the significance of bearing witness, of being present to people’s pain, for a while. I’ve mentioned a few times the impulse I had to be present to the experience of the couple who lost their child, Stella, last year, to assiduously follow their blog and just nod and listen as they dealt with the inarticulable worst that can happen. During that time, a lot of people said to me “I can’t bear to read it.”
That word, bear. Bearing witness, the unbearable. Uttered by people who can’t be with each other’s pain, about other people’s pain. A word we rarely use except in this context, being with something that bites at our worst imaginings and fears, challenges us to hold onto our belief in our own strength and humanity.
A friend stood present to someone who was dying over the holidays. “I have to be with that. I think a lot of people can’t be with what’s really happening here.” Described the fight in the death, the railing against the pain. Being with.
We met with a group today that seared the importance of bearing witness into my soul. We’re doing some work with a group trying to bring more collective voice to victims of crime. There were about 25 people in the room who have become advocates in one way or another, had advocacy thrust upon them because of experience no one ever wanted — and, I realized, people can’t bear to know about. It shocked me how much just sharing a room meant to them, feeling heard.
One after another, the stories were clear: the need to tell their story; the need to count in the process. “I walked across the country,” said one man, who’d lost his son to murder. “The physical ordeal was nothing. The people telling me “it can’t happen in my community” was the painful part. People don’t want to know that bad things happen to good people.”
A woman whose son was murdered in a grisly, horrific story that everyone is familiar with, whose mention made us all shudder and close our mouths tight, said simply, “I don’t have a voice. People don’t want to know that this actually happened.”
A lot of our conversation was about systemic voice — the power of victim impact statements, the strength that comes with being able to be at an inquest or parole hearing. The deep need to be as much a part of the process as the offender, to be seen as mattering. And underneath it, simply, the need to be heard, the need to know that someone knows what happened to you, how simply terrible it was.
I was thinking about what it means to stay when you want to go, how hard it might be in the middle of a breakup or to be with a loved one’s death. And how as a culture, we can’t bear to know about what truly broken people do to each other, metaphorically or really stick our fingers in our ears. When the story of the grisly murder has come up in conversation, I’ve had friends say over and over “I can’t know about that, don’t talk about it.”
And then there is this woman, who’s lost her son to the unnameable. And I realized today the incredible pain embedded across this group of people, who feel voiceless, who feel that not only have they lost people they loved, or their own capacity or function, but that in having their experiences muted, they’ve lost the most human thing we have: to tell our stories, to connect, to find hope in human connection, in learning from each other that soft light might follow the worst despair, the softening that comes from being known, having someone say simply, I’m sorry that happened, that is a terrible, terrible thing.
I thought there would be more anger in the room, and what there was was energy. Energy to be heard, energy to find hope in collective sharing of voice, energy to have people hear what it means to be injured in this way, to mobilize change in the silence.