I’ve literally hunted high and low. I seem to have misplaced the handbook. The instructions. The guide. You know what I mean, that book you are given soon after you are born. The one which details how to navigate life. I must have been given it at some point, right? I’m still scratching my head. It’s gotta be somewhere. I mean, who loses such a thing?! Anyway, I need a specific chapter. The one that focuses on how to help someone move through the deepest crisis of their life. If you have a copy, maybe you can send it over. I’m a bit stuck without it…

As my mum hits 86 next month, she creeps closer to it in the knowledge that she not only has a range of complex health needs, but that she now also has the added diagnosis of dementia. It arrived last week. Via Zoom. You know, one of those echoey calls, with a fabulous psychiatrist who had a broad Irish accent, some shaky internet connection, poor hearing from my mum and the bombshell message that not only does she have dementia but that her days of driving are over. You see, this is why I need that handbook so desperately. When was I ever equipped with the skills to sit alongside anyone in such despair?

How suddenly our roles have flipped. When she held my hand after falling off my bike aged 8 and I sobbed like a baby. Here I was, holding her hand as she sobbed like a baby with the news that she heard to mean, ‘your life is now over, Mrs Tyler’. So many questions but so few answers. Whilst she joked before the call about how they might lock her up in the nut house, she could never have anticipated what was looming around the corner. In a heartbeat, what freedom she had left, was wiped out.

As I sat with her in her kitchen, the very same space I had sat next to her after falling from my bike over 40 years previously, I was struck by the intensity of the split inside of me. One part felt to be operating in slow motion, a frame at a time. Almost as if we were stuck in this place, not knowing if we would eventually lurch forward to the next moment. I was calm. Everything felt gentle and wrapped in peace. The other half was a chorus of demanding voices; ‘tell her it will be ok, tell her she can get taxi’s, tell her not to worry, reassure her, say something wise, say something useful, just say something, fill the void, just fucking well speak man…’

Whilst my role in life means I am often sitting with people in deep despair, upset, trauma, heartache, confusion, loss….this was different. I wasn’t prepared for it. I believed I should be offering something different to my own mother. Why? Who knows. One of our core life tests is our ability to remain in relationship with ourselves whilst being in relationship with another. Read that again. I am unsure how, in that moment, I was able to stay deeply connected with my own truth and values and still be able to touch her truth. I will never quite know if I was able to do this or not…

2021 continues to test all of us in ways that we could never have anticipated. The testing isn’t over yet either. As organisations, families and community systems reel from the last 15 months, there are still many heavy burdens to let go of. The undercurrent of trauma bubbles away, often out of sight. Hiding. Invisible. Waiting to jump out and surprise us when we least expect it. So, where’s your handbook? What and whom will you turn to for guidance? How honed is your inner wisdom in matters such as this?

A few of my coaching clients are wrestling with this right now with people in their team and people in their family. It is devastatingly hard for them. They, like many of us, have been taught to fix things when they are not working well. This societal norm seduces them into looking for an answer, putting it in place and moving on. Up to the point that we realise life doesn’t work like this, it’s a total arse.

So, how can you sit with a fellow human who is in deep pain and despair? If you have a copy of the handbook, please scan this chapter over and email it to me. Until then, these are a few of the ways that I am working on myself to sharpen my ability to do this. I hope that it is enough.

  • Notice them. See them. Hear them. If your default is a sleep like state of living, you may not acknowledge that they are crying out for help. Turn your radar sensitivity up.
  • Make room for them. Our world is rammed full of noise and stuff to do. People are desperate for space. Help them carve out space for themselves.
  • You are enough. This is a hard one. I am strengthening my ‘enoughness’ muscle. Just your presence is enough. Just being there is enough. Believe me, your energy directed exclusively towards another soul, will always be enough.
  • Drop the solutions. Drop the good ideas. Drop the, ‘this happened to my auntie and do you know what she did’ line. It has no place here. Not yet. Maybe not ever. Have the sensitivity to know when to shut up.
  • Be in the pit with them. Stand shoulder to shoulder with them. As they sit in their own vulnerability, stay in yours too.
  • Compassion is the new currency. We think we know what it means and often we don’t. Reflect on what it means for you and consider how you spend your compassion.
  • Back yourself – you’ll do what is right. You might also notice the chorus of voices telling you to do certain things. Let them be there. They are parts of you, not all of you. You are more than the voices.

For many many people as they grew up, they didn’t experience a family system where they were heard, seen and held in appropriate ways. Many experienced something less than adequate. Whilst this is painfully difficult, it requires us to learn this in later life and figure out how, in all of our enoughness, we can create secure spaces for others to feel their pain.

As we the world starts its journey of recovery, we will all find ourselves in places where others need us to sit with them. Whether you head up your family, a book reading club, the badminton squad or a corporate team, you will be called to serve in this way. Don’t learn karate when you are being mugged, is a helpful motto. Practice the art of this now. As we all repair from this deep rupture, our ability to sit alongside a fellow soul is a quality and a skill we cannot choose to ignore.

Should I stumble over the handbook, I will be sure to share it with you…