On Being There

Often family and friends of individuals dealing with a life-threatening illness are concerned about how to be of support. “What can I do?”, What should I say?” are questions that indicate we want to be supportive, but don’t know quite how to go about “doing support.” It may be helpful to consider the concept of being a companion to your family member or friend on life’s most difficult journey.

In his book, I Don’t Know What To Say, Dr. Robert Buckman, discusses the importance of talking with the seriously ill person and the gift of being a sensitive listener. Some of his suggestions about talking and listening may be helpful in our role as a companion. According to Buckman, talking generally enhances the relationship with our friend; if we don’t talk, we risk ending up as strangers. He reminds us that:

  • Talking happens to be the best method of communication we have. While there are many non-verbal ways of communicating, talking is the most efficient and specific way we communicate with each other.
  • Simply talking about distress helps to relieve it. Talking helps release a bit of the pressure. As a companion you provide relief by simply allowing you friend to talk – you don’t even need to have all the answers..
  • Thoughts that a person tries to shut out will do harm eventually. Friends and family often feel that by not talking about the individuals fears and anxieties they can protect them from becoming worried or concerned. In fact, often the opposite is true – not talking about the fear can make it bigger. As a companion, one of the greatest services you can offer is to hear your friend’s fears and then stay close when you’ve heard them

While we may be willing for our friend to talk to us about fears and concerns, we also need to develop our skills as a creative and sensitive listener. It is a great gift to our friend to let them talk, but it is an even greater gift to listen. In order to be a good listener we need to prepare ourselves mentally and physically. Again, some hints from Dr. Buckman can enhance our listening and companioning skills.

  • Get the setting right. Get comfortable, sit down and relax. Keep you eyes on you friend. Have about two feet of space between you and make sure there are no physical obstacles between you.
  • Find out whether your friend wants to talk.
  • Listen and show you’re listening. Listen to what you friend is saying – don’t be rehearsing your answer. Try not to interrupt.
  • Encourage your friend to talk. Try nodding, saying “Yes”, “I see” or “Tell me more.” You can also repeat the last two or three words of a sentence to indicate you understand what your friend is saying.
  • Silence and non-verbal communication are important. We are often uncomfortable with silence, but you friend may need the silence to process the information. Or, there may be nothing to say. A touch or an arm around your friend’s shoulder can say more than words. Just being there is a great gift.
  • Don’t be afraid to describe your own feelings.
  • Make sure you haven’t misunderstood. Check your understanding by using simple questions or statements – “What did that feel like?”, “You sound angry.”, “I’m not clear, can you help me understand what you mean?’
  • Don’t change the subject.
  • Be careful not to give advice.
  • Encourage your friend to share memories and stories. This can be such a help to the individual – providing reassurance that his/her life has had meaning.
  • Respond with humour. Laughing is good!! Humour allows us to ventilate feelings and helps to cope with the threats and fears of serious illness. As one seriously ill individual commented, “Life may be fatal, but it doesn’t have to be serious.”

The thing about being a companion is that we are there for our friend. It does not necessarily mean that we know the answers or always know what to do. Rather, the art of companioning another is that of “being with” our friend, supporting with our presence. The best kind of “being there” happens when our own opinions, judgements, concerns, problems and “stuff” are put aside and our awareness is focussed on our friend or family member. In other words, “being there” depends on one’s ability to remove oneself from the scene – it means, getting out of the way.

To see our friend or loved one seriously ill is often painful. As we see their physical body attacked, it often becomes difficult to act naturally, look them in the eye or even be with him/her. Again, in our role as companion, we must focus on the person we knew – the inside of that special individual. The Skin Horse ( in The Velveteen Rabbit by Margarite Williams) knew what companionship was all about….

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse.

“It’s a thing that happens to you.”

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful.

“When you are Real, you don’t mind being hurt. It doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out, and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because one you are Real, you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

Companioning a person on this most difficult of life’s journeys requires that we make the way safe and unobstructed and then accompany him into the terrain he wishes to explore. To do the best job of companioning requires that we pay attention to many factors within us as well as the environment. Being there requires that we be free from nagging thoughts, bothersome discomforts, pressures or distractions. The bottom line – the companion is able to forget himself and is conscious of and fully present to the other person. Being a companion is being able to see and be with the Real person.