Bearing Witness

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM    February 28, 2021

Yes, it has been a year. And what has come of it? How have we been marking time or living with a newfound sense of time?

Once it became clear that COVID-19 was not going to fade away as we had once surmised, a friend of mine with a background in social work shared with me an idea that had been simmering in his thoughts for several months. He said that he had begun putting together a program to help individuals and groups deal with an anticipated landslide of requests for grief counseling. Returning to a pre-pandemic way of life meant also coming to terms with the reality that we had not ever been in control, perhaps merely suffering from the illusion of control.

Peter Steiner, Unsplash

My friend was referring, of course, to the obvious mourning of those who had lost someone to the coronavirus, often unable to be with their loved ones and console them as their breath diminished, and who now faced an aching emptiness in their lives going forward. Just as truly, he was speaking of our collective need to name and to make meaning of the many levels of loss, change, and disruption we’ve all experienced during this past year. He reflected that we’ve all met some form of trauma, loosely described as any unhealed wound, a deeply distressing or disturbing experience, a shock, upheaval, sorrow, or heartache. That we are all in some way grieving lives that have been disordered and turned upside down.

I believe he’s on to something. Perhaps because that imagining was in my consciousness, I was struck recently reading a post by Brené Brown where she noted that, “Grief requires witnessing.”

She shared it as a comment on David Kessler’s observation that “what everyone has in common is that no matter how they grieve, they share a need for their grief to be witnessed. That doesn’t mean needing someone to try to lessen it or reframe it for them. The need is for someone to be fully present to the magnitude of their loss without trying to point out the silver lining.”

During this Lenten season when we reflect on the forces that inexorably led Jesus closer to Calvary, I’ve been sitting with the grief that requires witnessing. Simon of Cyrene watching the unsteady steps of this quiet man and opening his heart to help shoulder the cross. Veronica stepping out from her place in the crowd and offering consolation with a towel. The women of Jerusalem aware that Jesus is some mother’s child and that he has been torn from the shelter of her embrace. Mary, looking into the haunted eyes, at the bruised and bloody body of Jesus, and knowing that her place is not to save her son but to be present to his excruciating suffering. The words exchanged between these onlookers and Jesus on the way to Calvary were few. But the testament to the power of presence is enduring. If we place ourselves in the crowd on that day, we might wonder: What might we ourselves have been impelled to do? How we might have been moved to be?

Henrique Jacob, Unsplash

Grief requires witnessing, now no less than then. Like these holy ones we remember during Lent, where might we now be called to stand with, stay with, and witness to the pain, anguish, and heartbreak of a world that is both beautiful and broken?

Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
Hold in your heart and prayer a person, place, or situation in our world where suffering is present.
Sit in silence and surround them with your healing compassion.
Bear witness to their grief.
What is it calling you to be or to do?

Featured image:   Jametlene Reskp, Unsplash

Please hold in your prayer these upcoming events:

March 6:   Virtual Lenten retreat for members of Women Helping Women and Our Lady Queen of Martyrs Single Adults, Forest Hills, NY, two amazing groups of people who gather regularly to make the world a better, more loving place.

March 13:  Retreat day for parishioners of St. Bonaventure – St. Benedict the Moor parish, Jamaica, NY.

Please also remember those who would have been part of a day for Spiritual Directors and a retreat weekend at the Franciscan Center for Spiritual Renewal, Aston, PA. Those events have been canceled.

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2 thoughts on “Bearing Witness”

  1. I loved your blog. If we can do nothing else we can share in the grief of another. I find this in my participation in our Parish Consolation ministry. People who are suffering great loss need an ear and a loving heart to be with them. It is a privilege to walk with them. Thank you S. Chris. ANNE Burke

  2. This entry is just so important – a must read for us. For me, my family and my friends. We have lost much more than the year 2020, and for those who grieve, the opportunity to invite others to just be present for them may be the beginning of healing.
    So well said, once again Sr. Chris.
    Thank you.

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