We all need someone to listen to us, to be our story keeper, a compassionate witness to our lives as they unfold. In my view those who need this most are our elders. Perhaps it is because they have so many stories to share.
On a recent trip to New Zealand, I visited someone very special - Eleitino Paddy Walker, long time, beloved resident of Rarotonga. At age 98, she was now in a nursing home. She looked frail but beautiful. I was told she couldn’t communicate much anymore, but when I used the virtues strategy of Spiritual Companioning, she talked to me for 45 minutes! Yes it was in wisps of sentences, but I followed with her as if I understood every word.
The key is to let go of an agenda to fix or advise. You are listening, mostly in silence. You follow their lead and validate their thoughts and feelings. You carry on the conversation as best you can without having to literally understand the meaning of their words.
For example, many people preparing to die talk about “going around the corner”, “have to take that trip”, “time to go”.
For them it often isn’t literal, but symbolic. Don’t ask them where they’re going or they will look puzzled. Just affirm what they are saying: “Time for that trip” or “going round the corner”.
In Paddy’s case, I started by telling her how beautiful she is, and then asking “So how is it now?”
She said, “I don’t even know what’s coming. Or if it’s true.”
“It’s true,” said I.
Yes, her thoughts came in random order and would trail off, but her words were powerful. She complained at the difficulty she now has finding words. She said, “Nothing left. It’s a void meeting a need.”
This was a woman used to meeting the needs of an entire community through many ways of serving. She was always gracious to anyone and everyone, and she is grieving her lost capacities.
At one point, she looked deep into my eyes and asked, “What’s at stake today?”
“Just life and death, Paddy, life and death.” I said.
She lay back and looked very pleased by that truth.
During an earlier visit I made to Rarotonga, out of the blue, she said, “It’s not going to be a big hoopla event.” Then she spread her hands, “It will simply be an opening.”
I have often heard people who reach their 90s say, “Isn’t this ridiculous!” Perhaps they mean, “How could I still be alive?”, and I agree. “Crazy ridiculous!”
They then feel understood far more than when well-meaning people disagree out of wanting to comfort, and say, “Oh, you’re so young for your age.”
One woman told me, “My relatives” (all passed on) are bothering me. Sometimes the room is so full I can’t think!”
“How annoying,” I said. She smiled broadly. Get on the train with them and take all the turns they take. I call this kind of companioning ‘sacred curiosity’.
Quaker theologian Douglas Steere said, “To listen another’s soul into a condition of disclosure and self-discovery is almost the greatest gift anyone can ever give another.”
One of the last things Paddy said to me was, “Can you imagine me not dancing? I can’t even move a toe.”
I recalled how she had demonstrated elegant Polynesian dancing at a Virtues conference years before. “Paddy, when you enter the other room, the bigger room, you’ll go in dancing.”
“Will I?” she said. “Oh,yes.” Her eyes sparkled and she lit up in a big smile.
There are many ways to practice Corinthians 12: 4 -8 “Love is patient and kind.”
Jolene Bosanquet was in Auckland at the time, and brought me to see Paddy. She brought along some exquisite white roses. Little gifts mean a lot. So, bring flowers. Bring food for their evening meal or a bit of chocolate. Pray or sing the old songs they love.
Many of them are ‘skin-hungry’, so touch them. Give them a hand or foot massage.
And, remember, the best present is just your loving, receptive, curious presence!