Sitting vigil with the ill or dying or their family is an awesome task in the original sense of the word. It is a sacred and frightening and joyful and uncomfortable and intimate honor and duty. I hope that these words and ideas are helpful to you when you find yourself sitting in a hospital waiting room or at a friend or family member’s bedside.
First, remember to breathe. Breath is the life force moving through and enlivening us. In traumatic times, our breath changes and sometimes stops. Take slow, deep breaths when you feel yourself closing up, getting uncomfortable, or feeling insecure. Your breathing with intent will help your friend to breathe more easily. Have her breathe with you.
The same goes for grounding. It sounds elementary, but breathing and grounding are many times your best tools for working through strong emotional pain. By grounding yourself, you automatically help your friend ground. If you find yourself not grounded, don’t berate yourself — just breathe and ground. If you can, guide her through grounding as well.
Open your heart to the experience. When we are faced with illness and death, we often close ourselves down in orderto numb or escape our feelings of sadness, helplessness, and grief. If you close yourself off, you will not be able to connect or empathize with your friend. Opening your heart works sympathetically, just as breathing and grounding do. Your open heart gives your friend permission to feel and experience her own insecurities and fears with you. Opening the heart in these times can be scary and uncomfortable. That’s okay. Allow yourself to feel those emotions and then call on the Goddess to give you strength, comfort, and compassion.
Never underestimate the healing power of touch. Humans thrive on touch. It is the easiest way to connect, to show that we care. When in situations like this, often the patient and the family lose touch. They do not touch each other. They are not touched by others. People not directly affected tend to withdraw, as if they will be contaminated if they touch and connect. Holding someone hand, rubbing their back, giving them a gentle hug with your hand gently but firmly holding the back — all of these communicate love and comfort without any words needing to be spoken. One no-no, however, is to pat them on the back when embracing them. No matter how gentle, this patting sends the message that what they are experiencing needs to be repressed and shoved back into the body.
Listen more than you talk. By opening up and just listening to whatever your friends says in her time of need, without always responding, without any judging, without chattering on, allows her to explore her feelings. Let your friend feel her feelings, some of which she may be horrified or discomforted by. Let her know that it is okay to have all sorts of emotions, and fantasies. Her wondering what the future will be like will not cause bad things to happen.
Enter the silence. We are very uncomfortable in silence and often search for any way to relieve our discomfort — watching TV or talking about anything but what is happening are frequent ways of numbing ourselves from ourselves and our situation. Resist the temptation. If you can, find soothing music to play. Or if the waiting room is too crazy, suggest that you two have some quiet time in the hospital chapel — usually there is no one there, and if they are, they are there for the same reasons.
Don’t be afraid to cry, too. If your friend is crying and you feel tears welling up, don’t repress them. Let yourself feel fully and empathize. If you remember to breathe and ground, you won’t loose control of yourself. You are holding the container for your friend during this time — the sacred space in which she can find comfort and healing while in the center of a whirlwind of fear and hope.
Do magic. If you need to cast a quick circle of protection around you and your friend, you can do so easily by visualizing the energy coming up from the Earth, circling around you, and into you. If you need to call on the elements, a silent or quietly spoken prayer invokes them just as well as a full-blown ritual with props. The gods always answer our calls. If your friend is pagan or religious, don’t be afraid to suggest that you two pray together. The words will come directly from the heart to the Goddess. Your friend may be comforted by the sound of your words, asking for strength, comfort, healing, and peace. If your friend does die, a prayer, asking the Hecate (or whoever is special to her or the family) to take her into Her arms and guide her to the next step on her journey and to comfort the living left behind, is good too.
One last thing — no platitudes. No “it’s for the best.” No “it’s the will of the gods.” No “everything happens for a reason.” No “it will be alright.” All of these may be true, but they are not what your friends needs to hear right now. There is nothing to say that can make death better or easier to deal with. Again, you breathe and ground, touch and listen. Letting your friend know that you are there to support and love her is more helpful than any “easy” platitude you can say. If she rails against the gods for this happening to them, don’t admonish her or correct her with theology. Again, not helpful right now. Hold the container and let her express these difficult emotions. If she asks you what you believe about illness and death, tell her gently and openly. But expect that this may still not help her right at this time. It will not dull her pain or make her grief any easier to walk through. Later, it may grow as a seed planted and give her comfort.
I pray that you find a connection to the Goddess during these times and that you find strength and compassion to help your friends, your family, and yourself. Remember She is always with us, even when we feel all alone.