I didn’t know the boy who had been killed in a car accident returning to college after Thanksgiving break. I don’t even remember his first name.
And yet, the afternoon his death was announced in school, I found myself sitting with his mother and holding her hand.
His father was my father’s law firm partner, so when my dad picked me up from school we stopped by the family home.
He promised we wouldn’t stay long. Promised I wouldn’t have to say anything—I was, after all, only in 7th grade, hardly prepared to face such grief.
But my dad could only look on helplessly as the boy’s mother took my hand and pulled me to sit on the sofa next to her. She clasped my hands between hers as she received friends’ comfort.
She didn’t speak to me, not really, but she held my hand as if it were the only thing keeping her from dissolving. And when I stood to leave, she hugged me as if we were dear friends, not strangers thrown together in a moment of tragedy.
That’s when I learned about the ministry of presence, though I didn’t use that phrase for many years.
Any comfort I brought that grieving mother had nothing to do with me personally. It had everything to do with the need she felt for presence, someone to sit with her in the face of incomprehensible loss, to hold her hand and let her know that she wasn’t alone.
I’ve always remembered that lesson.
* * *
An early exercise assigned in my leadership coach training program was to partner with another student and walk together, one of us thinking about a problem and the other simply being present.
My analytical brain scoffed at the idea that walking together could bring any light or solace as I contemplated whether to leave my husband. But, good student that I always am, I’d play along.
I started thinking, and then I started walking. Slowly. Head down. Hands shoved deep into my jacket pockets, shoulders hunched. My path meandered, sometimes turning back on itself.
And with each step, my classmate Gretchen accompanied me. She didn’t intrude, she didn’t press me to share what I was thinking about, and she certainly didn’t offer advice. She simply accompanied me.
She let me know I wasn’t alone.
And somehow, I felt that I could step into the questions I needed to face. Her presence tethered me so I knew I wouldn’t get lost in my own problems and freed me to consider how I might resolve them.
* * *
Five of us surrounded my father’s bed the night he died. Me, of course. Three of my best friends, each of whom had repeatedly offered us the gift of presence as we faced dementia. And a caregiver, a young woman who’d decided to forego her 24th birthday celebrations to be with my dad as he made his final journey.
We told stories, we sang, we shared midnight birthday cake.
As the hours passed, we became silent, listening to my dad’s breath. One by one, the others dropped off to sleep while I sat vigil.
And yet, I never felt alone.
Their presence sustained me.
Shortly before my dad took his final breath, each woman spontaneously woke up.
I suspect we all detected a shifting presence as my dad quietly slipped away.
* * *
When hard times come, my first question is always, Do you want company?
Many of us have been trained to decline. We don’t want to impose. And so, I listen to the tone underneath the response more than to the words themselves.
Of course, not everyone wants company. Not everyone wants my company. That’s fine. The ministry of presence is an offer, not a demand.
Often, though, others want comfort. Practical support may help, but frequently the only comfort I know how to offer is my presence. To sit quietly, to bring a cup of tea (or whiskey), to remind someone who’s grieving or afraid or sick that they are not alone. To create a space in which they can rest for a bit.
The gift of presence, the ministry of presence, strips away the need for words.
There’s nothing for us to do.
Our job is merely to be, to be with another person, to stand with them as they face something that feels too big to face alone.
It is, as a friend once said, holy work.
No robes, no incense, nothing formal or ritualized… Just us. Sitting. Holding hands. Usually exchanging only a few words. Connecting spirit to spirit.
* * *
There’s so much that’s difficult and painful about this pandemic world we’re facing today.
Of course I miss seeing friends. I miss going to restaurants and stores. I miss making decisions about errands without having to analyze whether I might get infected or infect someone else, and whether either could be fatal.
I miss the simple pleasure of not thinking so much about risk.
I miss seeing smiles, now hidden under masks.
Most of all, I miss getting to be with the people I love when they need comfort. Or when I do.
A dear friend’s young adult son died in July. She’s a medical provider, so allowing anyone other than immediate family to attend the funeral wasn’t even a thought. There’s nothing I can do to ease her pain except to let her know she isn’t alone—and text messages are a flabby substitute for a hug.
Another friend’s mother is facing the end of her fight with cancer. When my mom was dying with lung cancer, this friend flew to Atlanta one weekend to clean my house and cook meals for me. It hurts that I can’t return the favor.
A third friend has recently been told that her cancer is back, and this time it’s spread into her brain, her lungs, her bones. I cried when she told me, and then again when I realized that because of Covid, I might not see her again.
The ministry of presence operates via phone calls, text messages, Facebook, DoorDash delivery, care packages, and more… But there’s a cost when we can’t be together.
I suspect that’s why so many families threw caution to the wind around the holidays: we want the comfort of our loved ones’ presence. I have no living family, so I didn’t face a difficult holiday decision. But I know that if I had a chance to see any of these three friends for even a moment, I would be hard-pressed to allow the amorphous but real risk of Covid stop me.
* * *
So where do we go when we seek presence that can’t be offered in person?
For me, it’s always been nature. It’s always been Wyoming.
The ministry of presence is about something that’s bigger than our own small selves. It’s about offering or accepting someone else’s excess capacity to absorb pain.
And for those of us who feel the connection, nature has an enduring quality that promises to accept whatever we may bring.
I’ve walked deep into a forest where I screamed and raged and cried until I was exhausted, and then I napped on the mossy ground among tree roots, safe in nature’s embrace.
I’ve stood at the edge of a canyon and felt the expansiveness that offered to hold my problems, my fears, my worries, my pain.
I’ve felt the Wyoming wind caress my back, dry my tears, almost raise me up and then push me forward, strengthened by the wind’s tenacity and equipped to face whatever might come my way.
One of my favorite hymns promises that There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy. I find that there’s a wideness in God’s creation as well.
And so, for now, I’ll be held in nature’s embrace, and I’ll bring my friends’ pain with me.
Make no mistake, though: once it’s safe, I’ll be traveling the country and hugging some much-missed necks.
Because sometimes, I can’t wait to hug your neck is all the benediction we need to make it through another day.