When I was serving as an on-call hospital chaplain, I was often called on to simply “hold space” for a patient, family members, or a staff person. In many ways, offering spacious, compassionate presence is of the essence of chaplaincy, of pastoral care, of the work of our lay pastoral associates. Frequently, there is “nothing else” we can do, but in that moment, it is everything that is truly needful.
I remember particularly one late-night call into the emergency department. The woman was young, probably early twenties. She was there alone. She had awakened to find her small baby dead from what was likely SIDS. When I arrived, she was sitting on the gurney holding her baby and sobbing, her heart cracked open. I introduced myself quietly and expressed my sorrow for the death of her baby. None of which she even heard. The small room was far too full of grief for there to be any room for words. I sat behind her on the gurney and held her while she held her baby. Her sobs vibrated through my own body. I don’t remember how long we sat there. Eventually, she was ready to leave, and I walked her to the door. I could not take away her pain; I could not make the unthinkable right. But I could be with her, alongside her, and that was enough.
In part, I learned to do this as an aspect of my professional training. But I have learned the most from the people who have been able to hold space for me with skill and grace. I am truly blessed to have had such people in my life, people who have come into my life at the precise time needed them. I recently saw holding space described this way: “It means that we are willing to walk alongside another person in whatever journey they’re on without judging them, making them feel inadequate, trying to fix them, or trying to impact the outcome. When we hold space for other people, we open our hearts, offer unconditional support, and let go of judgement and control.” In short, it’s being present, fully, unconditionally present, without judgment and without trying to fix the person or situation.
Any of us may be called upon to hold space in this way for others in our family, our friends or colleagues, or even the stranger who is seated next to us on the plane. What guidelines can we keep in mind to help us in such situations?
Holding space, being with someone in this supportive way, does not mean “fixing.” This disempowers them and undercuts whatever confidence they have in their ability to find their own solutions, solutions that grow from within them rather than being imposed from outside. Our job is to make a safe space in which they can access their own best wisdom. That wisdom is present, and it will guide them. Yes, of course we can give gentle guidance when asked for or when obviously needed. There are times when someone needs to step in (for example with someone dealing with addiction or considering suicide).
But mostly, we need to allow them to feel safe and supported even when they make what we see as mistakes, especially when they make mistakes. People need the kind of safety that allows them to risk making mistakes. Sometimes, perhaps often, the person for whom we are holding space will make a decision we would not make, and that’s OK too.
When someone feels this safe, complex emotions, fears, traumatic memories, confusions and more tend to tumble over each other. One of the greatest blessings of being held in strength and grace is that we can allow this jumble of feelings and experiences to surface and receive our nonjudgmental attention. We can know that this, too, can be accepted. We can allow someone to fall apart and know that because they are held in the strength of another, they will come out the other side more whole.
I’m reminded of the son of a of a family we were friends with when I was in grad school. A thunderstorm had awakened him in the middle of the night, and he was frightened. After comforting him, as he was preparing to return to his own bed, his dad said to him, “You know, Robert, even when I go back to bed, God is still here with you.” Robert thought about this for a moment, and then, with 5-year-old candor, said, “Yes, I know, but sometimes God needs arms and legs.” Whether we embrace God-language or not, holding space for another is sacred, holy work.
We can hold space for others only if we are able to give ourselves the same gift. We cannot hold another’s pain unless we can hold our own. We need to take care of our own well-being, to practice self-care, however that looks for us. It is, as one writer says, “It is being present, treating yourself with care, consideration, kindness, compassion and love. Hearing the needs of your body and mind, feeling your emotions, and listening to the yearning of your soul. It’s a way of being, a lifestyle, a profound choice and a stand you take. It’s not a belief system, but is rather a way of being with yourself and meeting your own needs.”
- Accepting our imperfections
- Knowing how and when to say “no” and maintaining healthy boundaries
- Know when we need to ask for support
- Take time for stillness and reflection, prayer, or meditation
- Nurture yourself, every day, in whatever ways work best for you.
Ours is a community in which people hold space for each other. This is an act of welcome, of love, of grace. We’ll walk together through the changes that this coming church year will bring. It’s going to be a good journey.