I mentioned to a client recently that I was going to write something for our website, and I asked her what she thought would be important to convey about working with survivors of sexual abuse. She said, “That every person has value. No one deserves to be treated like that.” So simple, and so true. We can get caught up in the idea that we have to know exactly the right thing to say to someone when they are hurting, yet all they may need is for someone to be with them, to hear them, to say by their presence “You matter. You have value.”
Recently I came across a book called Trauma Stewardship by Laura van Dernoot Lipsky. This book talks about caring for others, and how this impacts both those cared for, and those doing the caring.
“Trauma stewardship is not simply an idea. It can be defined as a daily practice through which individuals, organizations, and societies tend to the hardship, pain, or trauma experienced by humans, other living beings, or our planet itself. Those who support trauma stewardship believe that both joy and pain are realities of life, and that suffering can by transformed into meaningful growth and healing when a quality of presence is cultivated and maintained even in the face of great suffering.” (p. 11)
By this definition, we are all in the position to be trauma stewards because there are very few people who have no contact with others who have had some kind of pain or struggle. But what does it mean to be present, to bear witness, in order to be a trauma steward?
Author Jon Kabat Zinn defines presence as “mindfully paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” Is this easy? Not always. Our own personal worries and struggles can get in the way. But if we take the time to focus on the person in front of us, and hold the space for them to feel and express their pain, it matters.
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Idioms defines bearing witness as “To show by your existence that something is true.” Trauma is real. Having that acknowledged matters. Our presence matters.
I have heard it said that bearing witness is one of the greatest forms of love. A quote from Mother Teresa says “We can do no great things, only small things with great love.” So, the next time someone is sharing a painful moment with you, don’t worry about “fixing” things for them, or saying all of the right things, but just be with them, in that moment, letting them know “You matter.”