A couple of months after September 11th, 2001 I paid a Shiva visit to pay my respects for the passing of the mom of a friend. In my dress uniform, about to walk up the few steps of the front porch of their home in Brooklyn, I stopped and thought to myself, I have nothing to give. I'm all out; I'm empty. Still numb from the shock and the pain of the devastation of the attacks on our city and our nation, and the loss of my nephew, Fire Fighter Michael Roberts, I felt like I had nothing to offer, nothing left for this family. I had no words of comfort, no wisdom to offer. And after all, isn't that what we're supposed to bring with us to such a visit?
I greeted Edy, who was with another sibling, and rather than offer any words, I asked a question; where her mom Hannah was born. Her answer to that one question became a half-hour conversation. She told me of her mom's ordeal escaping Europe during the onset of World War II. Other siblings and family members then joined her. During a very sad time, it actually seemed that they were uplifted talking about their mom's journey in her early years, including coming to America and meeting their father.
In the years since that night, I became close with Edy and her husband Douglas, and the rest of their family. A number of times they have told me that they will never forget the words I said to them during that Shiva visit. But I know that it was not what I said to them, rather, it was what they said to me. I did not tell Edy and her family that their mom was in a better place, or that she was not suffering anymore, or that her pain was now over. My gift was not my words, but my genuine interest in them, and their mom's life. That was when I began to understand the power - the gift and the love - of empathic listening.
Because it is our nature to give, why we are here, we tend to show up in every conversation giving, giving our words, our thoughts, our opinions and of course, our support. But sometimes our greatest gift is not what we give, but what we take, how we listen. I am old enough to have had many conversations with people who have been diagnosed with a serious illness. I have come to those conversations with all of the things I'm "supposed" to say. I would call a friend who had been diagnosed with stage four cancer. He would proceed to tell me everything about the diagnosis, from the massage therapist feeling a lump in his lower back, to the first visit to the doctor, to the biopsy and then he'd start talking about the plan for chemotherapy and radiation. I would wait until I could get a word in and I say, "Well anyway, I am here for you. You will beat this. You are a fighter. My uncle has been living for 25 years since he was diagnosed with cancer." And here is the best; "If there's anything you need, just let me know." But what he needed was for me to not interrupt him, and to listen. With good intentions, I failed him.
Our best efforts to help a loved one, ironically can dull the greatest gifts we have to offer, to listen. Our child comes home from a bad day, a spouse wants to talk about something that bothered him at work, and so often we listen for just a moment, and then we interrupt them with our solutions. Why do we do that? Because we care, we love them. We want to fix the problems. But it's not the fix they need; rather it's being heard that they crave.
Listening is the greatest love and support we can give. And, we get so much out of it as well. We learn more about those we care about. We learn perspectives from strangers we never would have known. We know so much about ourselves, so it doesn't make sense that others have so much more to offer us? So often we ask people how they are doing, but it's just a phrase; we don't really care about the answer. Imagine if we did? Imagine how much love and caring we could give to people throughout the day, with those simple moments. And, imagine how much more life we would experience.
Back to that, Shiva visit for Edy's mom Hannah. One of the things that she told me that night was that her mom would always say to people, "May all of your weeds be wildflowers." Since that night, for 20 years of my life, I have said that to people, an average of three times a week. Every time I do, I think about what it means to me, and what it must have meant to Hannah. The responses are always a warm smile, and I walk away with a warmth in my heart, so appreciative of what I learned, the night that I thought I had nothing to give.
Thank you for taking the time to read this. And, may all of your weeds be wildflowers.