Not long ago I spent two hours in a cozy recording studio with my long-time friend Anne Hallward talking about goodbyes. Anne is the host of Safe Space Radio, a public radio show dedicated to improving public health by giving voice to subjects that can be hard to talk about. The show for which we recorded will be broadcast on NPR stations and is about saying goodbye to people we love who are dying or have already died.
As the host of the show, Anne began by sitting quietly, closing her eyes, and centering herself in silence before a long conversation in which there would be no rush, so no sense of scarcity around her attention or time. I watched as she made a conscious transition into a place of compassion, tenderness, patience and deep listening.
“Tell me about saying goodbye to your son,” she began. At first, as I answered each of her questions with some stiffness and concern about how I would sound, I worried my words would not make sense. Then I started to relax as I realized she was giving me all the time I needed to explain such a complicated, nuanced topic as navigating terminal illness in a child. As I spoke, her expression seemed to offer only quiet, loving interest in my thoughts.
This kind of experience is all too rare in our busy, rushing society, when most people have somewhere to go and some pressing event on their calendar just after their time with you. Anne is one of the busiest people I know. When she arrived at the studio, she apologized for being rushed as she had just returned from a morning of recording in Boston. And I knew after our time together she would be rushing home to spend rare time with her family. But because of her generosity as a listener, the way she beamed all her loving attention toward me with every question she asked, as we sat together in the warm quiet of the studio, it was as if the rest of the world disappeared while I talked about saying goodbye to my son.
Anne’s attention allowed me to return to a time that had a deep impact on who I am as a person, to a topic that is tender and rich with emotion. It is a time I have mostly been able to leave behind in my current life, a time I don’t choose to return to often because I no longer need to. But being invited back there by someone who offered so much interest and kind curiosity allowed me to revisit one of the things that gives my life so much meaning. I was able to return to moments of tenderness, love and heart-rending pain.
I spoke of the time I cried with my six-year-old son, when I was so overcome with sadness over the growing clarity that he was dying that I could no longer hold back my tears, and he held my head in his skinny arms as the tears rolled down my cheeks. As I cried that day, the thoughts shouted in my head: Don’t leave me. Please don’t leave me. I love you so much. I’ll never make it if you die. But I didn’t want him to lose hope, so instead I had to change the words before they left my mouth: “I just love you so much. I hate to see you suffer. I want you to get well.”
As I told Anne this story, I felt tears rising to my eyes and the quavering in my voice betray my loss of composure. Anne’s eyes too were shining with tears. I hadn’t wanted to cry, but in that moment when I looked past the microphones across the table at Anne, when I worried about recording such sadness, it was good to know I was heard. It was good to know my heart still remembered how much I lost back then.
We continued after a quiet pause. And I moved back into examining the topic at hand with more detachment. After the interview, as I drove home, what stayed with me was not the views and ideas we’d discussed about death and departures. What stayed with me was the softness of my heart, opened by the simple but precious act of asking and listening. This softness, this sense of opening and depth does not come to us without making a place for it, without invitation and welcome. Anne’s invitation was her gift to me. My acceptance of the invitation was my gift to myself.
Most of us don’t often have the opportunity to be invited to speak in this way. Most people in our lives don’t have the time or attention to give us this kind of opening. This is why I think writing to heal can be so important.
When we write for healing, we, like a good listener, first center ourselves in silence, summoning attention and a deep sense of compassion. When we begin to write, we may feel awkward, stiff, but we keep going, our kinder wiser self patiently waiting while we bumble our way into our stories. When we make time to pick up the pen and ask ourselves about those topics that are tender or raw or generally hidden under the busy-ness of our daily lives, and we then listen with patience and kindness to whatever comes out onto the page, we are giving ourselves a gift. We are letting ourselves touch into places that matter to us. It might feel like there’s no room in the larger, outside world to talk about these topics, so if we don’t ask ourselves about them, if we don’t invite our own musings, they may never come into the light.
No matter what I write when I sit down to ponder on the page, whether it’s an attempt at a poem or paragraphs of complaining, I always feel at least a little bit unburdened by the process. I feel I know myself just a tiny bit better. And sometimes I’m lucky. I can find my way into something sweeter, deeper, more vulnerable in the writing that leaves me especially aware of what really matters to me, that lets me touch into this soft heart. When I make space to write, I am telling some part of myself that otherwise would be neglected, left in the dark, You are important. I care about what you are going through. I am listening. You are not alone.
I don’t know exactly why or how this works, but I am glad it does because doing it over and over has helped me see that my life matters, that the stories I carry are worthy of telling. To know that I am heard, even if only by an audience of one, helps me heal. And by inviting me to speak, Anne, and others like her, remind us how important it is to tell our stories.