If Someone Asks You to Witness Their Pain, Please Say ‘Yes’

Olivia Gaughran
7 min readMay 21, 2021

The only reprieve from suffering is by clambering down into it together.

Photo by nikko macaspac on Unsplash

I’ve been on the receiving end of grief recently.

What I mean by that is people I love have been coming to me with their pain. This is perplexing to me because I have felt panic-stricken myself, anxious to the point of immobility, knee-deep in my own struggle. I’m only just able to create emotional safety for myself, especially in the last week. I mean, on the morning of my birthday, I went in for a massage that my mom had scheduled for me (so wonderful, right?), had a panic attack ten minutes in, and had to leave! It’s been hard.

The last time I felt this tightly wound was in April of 2019, when I went on a trip to Chicago. On the day I was supposed to return to Seattle, I took a train from downtown to the airport…twelve hours early. I dragged a huge, heavy suitcase down ten blocks to the train station, tripping over my own feet and sweating profusely as my heart thudded in my chest. My shoulder ached and I pressed my tongue hard against the roof of my mouth, focusing on keeping the rolling nausea at bay. I remember my back pressed against a concrete column at 9AM, palms sweating, playing one song over and over until the battery on my headphones died. I sat in my own silence until, six or seven flights later, it was my turn to board. My parents came to pick me up after I landed and I collapsed into their arms, even though I was only away for four days.

As we drove away from the airport, I remember feeling the anxiety like molasses, thick and heavy in my chest, melt away into my arms and legs until I eventually breathed it out in the safety of my family. In this reprieve, I was able to talk about how wonderful a time I had meeting new friends and exploring the city. But something uneasy about that time has stuck with me, and I remember my fingertips pressed heavily into the cold window as we drove home through the dark, warily watching the city lights flicker into the distance over Lake Washington. I felt suspended between something terrible and something beautiful, surrounded by suffering but wading through the trenches of it with a whole-hearted resolve, knowing that the only way out is across. If only I knew how to move.

I’m recognizing the same type of feelings from then as they surface again, now. What am I suspended between? And what is with all this grief coming my way? It feels like I’m putting out big blasts of invisible radio waves that signal, “I’ll hold your pain with you. Come this way.” There I am, wandering around the recesses of my mind and getting lost in my body, when another person knocks on the door and climbs down into the chasm with me. What is that about? I think the only way I can develop an understanding of it is by writing about it.

When someone comes to me and pleas without words, “Witness my suffering — I need you to see and understand what is here”, I hold them as well as I know how to and behold their fullness, the richness of their experience. Beholding someone’s deepest pain throws a wrench in our plans. It is an embodied, time-consuming, transformative process. It moves schedules around. It makes space for whatever needs to show up, no matter how long it takes or how brutally it appears. Honestly? The call to show up doesn’t care if you’re having a hard day. Or if you’re so anxious you can’t eat. Sometimes, people just need you.

I’m feeling the need to qualify this statement with the quasi-performative, “Make sure you set boundaries, engage in self-care, you’re not obligated to do anything for anyone…” etc. etc. but I’m going to resist this urge. I’m not talking about people who manipulate your energy for their own benefit. Or bleeding yourself dry for someone else or burning yourself out on other people’s suffering. This is not that.

If they haven’t already, someone close to you will inevitably say,

“I NEED YOU TO SEE ME. THERE IS NO WAY FOR ME TO EXIST IN THE WORLD WITHOUT SOMEONE KNOWING THIS ABOUT ME. IT WILL CHANGE US BOTH. PLEASE.”

And then you are forced to choose between the way things were, or the way things will be. Blissful ignorance, or the raw, unfiltered, gruesome truth. This is unfathomably uncomfortable to many people, who recoil — an understandable safeguard against pain and change. But most of the time, almost all the time, I nod, and clamber down into the trenches, where we sit quietly in their suffering and I do not look away. I don’t think we can recognize the importance of witnessing until we, ourselves, have been witnessed. I know that panic-stricken wild eyed desperation, the lifeboat whistle, the outstretched hands searching through the dark for someone, anyone to grab onto. And because I know it, I cannot ignore it.

I have always loved grieving people; perhaps this is because I am almost always grieving. Grieving people are thrust, over a long period of time and all at once, into a new, physically unbearable world. It’s a passing over from one lifetime to the next — a sliding door moment. There is no way to go back to the way things were before, no matter how we might wish to. Whatever or whoever was lost, we are forever changed by it. That kind of existential suffering is something that I relate to; I think most empaths can.

So when someone, especially someone who I love and hold deep affinity for, comes to me and says, “I need to share with you my deepest pain. Can you handle it?” I consider that an honor, and an invitation. I could never do it as a career; my access points are too sensitive to bill out that kind of sacred time. But I do it over and over again, because of and in spite of my own suffering. Because in my understanding of how we are called to love one another, there is no more beautiful a way than this.

Witnessing is scaffolded into literal, metaphorical, and existential parts of life. It’s not always meeting a friend to hold them while they cry. Sometimes it’s a phone call or an email. I’ve encountered all of the above this week. It could happen in a breakout room, in a grocery store, in a bathroom. If you feel you have ever been seen or held in your suffering, then you understand that it happens in mysterious ways, both overtly and subconsciously. It’s slippery, holy, and subjective. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done and experienced. I think it might be one of the few ways to consistently access our best, most empathetic selves.

I read an essay this week called, “Dwelling-Mobility: An Existential Theory of Well-Being” by Les Todres and Kathleen T. Galvin. They write, “To dwell is to come home to one’s situation, to hear what is there, to abide, to linger, and to be gathered there with what belongs there…The essence of dwelling is simply the willingness to be there, whatever this ‘being there’ is like. One can come to dwelling in many ways, such as sadness, suffering, concern, attentiveness, acceptance, relaxation, or patience.”

It is not a kind of peace that depends on certain conditions, like eradicating sickness or the absence of pain. Whatever the qualities, good and bad, are in our life, dwelling brings us into relationship with them and makes room for acceptance, without rushing to change it.

Mobility, on the other hand, is “a sense of unfinishedness that seeks future possibilities, people and projects. It is a creative restlessness in which we are called into our future possibilities…a feeling of flow, aliveness, and vibrant movement.” Mobility opens up our spatial horizons to something worth moving towards. If dwelling is being grounded in the present moment, then mobility moves us towards our desires. And we need both to be well. Dwelling without mobility is claustrophobic and stuck-in-place. Mobility without dwelling is anxious and jaded. My professor and close friend, Dr. Jen Schulz, drew its parallel today to this excerpt from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1967 speech, Where Do We Go From Here?

Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic… So without love, benevolence becomes egotism, and martyrdom becomes spiritual pride.

This strong, demanding, type of love is how Dr. King proposes we must seek the highest good. How necessary the both/and are. It’s through a relationship with both, power and love, dwelling and mobility, that we might be able to crack open the mystery of our well-being and find some sort of tacit feeling of at home-ness, justice, and peace. I’ve found as I behold and am beholden, witness and am witnessed, the anxiety that has a grown root systems in my muscles relaxes its hold. Lessens. The tension relieves itself; sleep comes more easily. I think the phenomena are linked. Just as I was in 2019, I am currently suspended between coming and going. And just as it was in April, the only way out is across.

THE ONLY WAY OUT IS THROUGH EACH OTHER.

I hope we can recognize the immense privilege it is to witness and radically accept one another; to see each other renewed as if for the very first time. Todres and Galvin write, “When dwelling is experienced as a form of personal identity, there is a sense of being at ‘one with’ the world; when mobility is experienced as a form of personal identity, there is a sense of ‘I can’.” Both of these, I am and I can, bring us closer to a type of relational well-being, where grace can never be earned or lost. Where love flows in bounds without prerequisite. Just to flow.

Just to be.

--

--

Olivia Gaughran

Medical anthropologist, editor, and creator of The Olly Project @ theollyproject.com! Probably reading bell hooks or taking a long walk.