How to Hold Space when Others Suffer

One of the greatest gifts we can give another is to hold space for them. Holding space is when we stay focused and present with another person while they are going through strong emotions.  Frequently these emotions are the hard ones: grief, despair, fear, and what I call worry and flurry. To hold space is to be present without judgment, problem solving, or expectations.

As children, our mothers and fathers held space for us when we cried. The way we simply hold a baby in our arms to comfort it, is much like how we hold space for adults we care about. You probably have experienced a look of kindness so gentle that it freed the tears stopped up within you.  That person was holding space for you in their heart.

So how do we do it? How do we go about holding space?

Sometimes holding space involves physically holding, but more often that not, it is to hold our friend with our heart and our mind… in person, on the phone, or in our thoughts.  To hold space is to make room in our heart to witness their pain, and not to problem solve or change it.  To let it be just as it is so they can work through it themselves, with the comfort of knowing we are there for them in body or in spirit.

I really learned to hold space as a spiritual care volunteer in palliative care.  I came to accept that no matter how hard I wished, I couldn’t take away the physical or emotional suffering of another.  Nor could I remove the anguish of family members as they prepared for life without their loved one. To think I could was to feel more powerful than I actually was, and also didn’t make room for them to go through things in their own way. And so I learned what it meant to be truly WITH people in empathy and kindness. The more aware and open I was to their experience, whatever it was, the better I was able to be a genuinely supportive companion. Sometimes I held a hand, rubbed feet, made a cup of tea, or offered gentle words.  But most of the time, few if any words were spoken. Often I synchronized my breath with theirs allowing us to be two human beings bridged by our breath.

To hold space is to let someone know they do not walk alone. You aren’t trying to release their emotions for them.  Rather you give empathetic support that can gives them courage to bear what they must bear. To resolve what they must resolve. To feel what they must feel. Holding space is beyond words. It is a precious gift but holding space can be hard. Strive not to take anything personally or to let the other’s pain reside in your own spirit because of worry or transference. It’s wise to nourish yourself afterwards.  After my shift at the hospital, I would walk home as a transition. Once home, I relaxed in a hot bath. This was my ritual of holding space for my own emotions afterwards.

The amazing thing about holding space is that it is not a one-sided relationship.  Whatever space I offered, I was given the same and more in return.  Holding space is two people touching the collective spirit of their humanity together.

Funeral Celebrant Michele Davidson,

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