Then Job answered and said: “I have heard many such things; miserable comforters are you all. Shall windy words have an end? Or what provokes you that you answer? I also could speak as you do, if you were in my place; I could join words together against you and shake my head at you. I could strengthen you with my mouth, and the solace of my lips would assuage your pain. Job 16:1-5
“The simple act of witnessing.” I read it in an essay written by Paul Kalanithi’s wife, Lucy, called, “My marriage didn’t end when I became a widow.” In her essay, she describes what it was like to lose her husband to cancer and to attempt to carry on as a mother, a daughter, a friend, a physician and a widow. She says, “When my husband died from cancer last March at age 37, I was so grief-stricken I could barely sleep. One afternoon, I visited his grave — in a field high in the Santa Cruz Mountains, overlooking the Pacific Ocean — and lay on top of it. I slept more soundly than I had in weeks. It wasn’t the vista that calmed my restless body; it was Paul, just there, under the earth. His body was so easy to conjure — limbs that had linked with mine at night, soft hands that I had grasped during the birth of our daughter, eyes that had remained piercing even as cancer thinned his face — and yet, impossible to hold. I lay on the grass instead, my cheek against the ground.” She tells about life before he died. “We found new depths of trust and confidence in each other — as husband and now patient, wife and now caregiver,” and describes the many things that she tried to do to make him comfortable. She says, “We talked honestly about his prognosis. To ease his burden, I managed his 15-plus medications, slipping anti-nausea pills into his pockets when we kissed goodbye each morning. When pain wracked his body, I drew hot baths, kneaded his muscles, and offered anti-inflammatories, music and the simple act of witnessing.” “The simple act of witnessing.” So many times, when confronted with a person’s suffering, we do not know what to do. Should we take a meal? Send a card? Visit? What is the right thing? How can we help? Is it more overwhelming to help? Does the person end up entertaining the visitor? Are the foods not on their diet? Are the cards too sad and melancholy? What to do when we don’t know what to do? Do nothing. Simply be. Simply share in their sorrow if they feel sad. Share in their happiness when they remember good times. Share in their frustration or anger when they want to rage against the unfairness of it all. Witness their emotions. Be a testament to them. And to the person that they are. All of it, the sadness, the happiness, the anger is a part of who they are. Let them be themselves, not an artificial mannequin in their image. Even after death, life lives on. In our memories, in our hearts. And what better way to keep them alive than “the simple act of witnessing” their death? Lucy Kalanithi took on the task of publishing her husband’s unfinished book as a way of tribute to his life. But, she couldn’t have done that if she hadn’t witnessed his death.