C.S. Lewis, one of my all time favorite human beings (whom I have never met, but feel I know) writes about a friend who was truly there for him when his beloved wife, Joy, died of cancer. A renowned academic from Oxford University, Lewis had many friends and colleagues. When she died, many were there for him, and all were, undoubtedly, well-meaning. They visited and talked with him, offering them their condolences and words of understanding. Those who shared his Christian faith offered him words of encouragement. But it would seem, according to Lewis, all of these words, lovely and articulate as they may have been, left him empty.
Lewis writes that this was the friend who truly understood--who was the blessing to him in his darkest hours. The loneliness was terrifying, but this friend was there to feel it alongside him. Two friends, separated by experience, the only sign of life their shared breathing in a room together. Lewis said that volumes were spoken by his friend in the quiet that day... they were, in essence, joined by the language of presence.
In his book entitled A Grief Observed, Lewis writes: "Imagine a man in total darkness. He thinks he
I have experienced this quite precious phenomenon just a few times in my life, once, when I was just out of college, enduring what I thought would be the worst possible heartbreak of my life. Nothing seemed like it would ever hold any joy for me ever again. I had lost the love of my life, a young man who had been my best friend in high school, and my sweetheart for five years beyond, and now, it was over. I didn't want to hear that I would love again, or that everything would be alright in time. I didn't want to be told that what I was experiencing was nothing new, but the age old right of passage experienced by nearly every young woman at LEAST once in her life. I certainly didn't want to hear that familiar adage: "This may be the first heart break, but it certainly won't be the last."
When I'd had enough, she just said, "Let's go out and see a movie. I'll buy you some cheesecake."
We are human beings, not human doings. Yet, in the fast-paced, hyper-drive demands of life, we don't act like it. To be appreciated and honored by someone's mere presence is truly nothing short of a miracle. We are. We exist. And more than that, we co-exist, and when words fail, or there are no words that work to comfort our grief and our pain, it is the presence of one we love that offers all the communication we need. It's like its own separate language...one that is felt rather than heard.
When my father died, I remember coming home from the hospital, and suddenly finding myself unable to breathe. His "gone-ness" was overwhelming me. It felt like a wave was crashing over my head, over and over again, not allowing me a second to process what I had just lost that day. I couldn't get my head above the water of grief. It was too much. I panicked and was hysterical. I didn't know what to do. That man who had cared for me, taught me, carried me; the man who had so often been my strength and security was gone. In a world that often seemed like a dark and bottomless void, he was the island. Now, where was my footing? To whom could I go for that wise, sound, logical and loving guidance?
What does this mean for you? You are all very young, and I desperately hope that you have not yet experienced a sorrow that eats you alive and leaves you unable to breathe. But if you have, well, maybe there is some bittersweet gift to be found in that. Perhaps you are stronger--wiser--and more than that, you may one day find yourself in the role of C.S. Lewis's friend; understanding that when you find a loved one drowning in the darkness of despair, you cannot give them the "right words." In fact, you won't offer words at all. You will just be--sharing their air, drinking in the sadness and hopelessness right along with them. And then they will understand how powerful we truly are, just in our existence, and how there is a wisdom and a truth in the silence.
In his article entitled The Art of Presence, Woods summarizes it perfectly: "What seems to be needed
What is the language of presence to you? How does it communicate with no words or sound? You don't have to share anything too personal if you don't wish, but this is a language class. There are more and sometimes better ways to speak than with words. I would love to hear about yours...
There is a sweet music in the silence,
if you really listen,
you will hear....(Caraway, 2007)