The Power of Presence

Finding Strength and Community Being Present with Loved Ones

By Rabbi Richard F. Address

I remember being an undergraduate student at university and having a class on religion taught by two very famous theologians. I knew I desired to become a rabbi and was eagerly soaking up the class, and the wisdom, of these two scholars.

One class was devoted to theological issues surrounding the end of life. Discussions naturally evolved to helping families with close to death crises. I recall the question that helped shape the year. Someone asked what to say or what are the best words to use to give comfort in times of great loss and grief. The professor just looked back at the student asking the question and smiled…

Waiting a second or two, he just leaned forward and said, “Sometimes the best thing is to say nothing, sometimes, the best thing for you to do is just to be there.”

There are moments in all of our lives when we are confronted with unspeakable loss. We rush to someone’s side, and we wish to do “something”, say “something.” Something that will comfort more often equally for us as for the people experiencing the grief. Yet, more often than not, as that professor said, the most powerful thing you can do is just to “be there.”

There is something healing in presence, something strong in community. The Jewish mourning ritual of Shiva (the seven day period of mourning that follows a funeral) is just such a rite. It allows a mourner to do “grief work” surrounded by family, friends and community. It makes the struggle to understand loss easier to bear, in a way, when supported by community.

Sadly, the last year, I have had the experience to see the power of community more times than I wished. Too many times I have had to be part of a community that was forced to deal with a sudden death. Each time, I was taken by the power of presence. I know the mourners had no idea of the sheer numbers of people who came to the funeral or to the Shiva. And that really does not matter. Equally meaningful to those in mourning is the power of the community for those who attend. Nothing shakes us more than the harsh reality of a sudden death, no matter at what age the death happens.

The unexpected loss triggers our own fears of our mortality and we naturally wish not to be alone. So presence cuts both ways; support for those in need and a real sense of psycho-spiritual healing for those who support. It is the power of presence, of your touch, of your hug, most often remembered more than the words. It is in the strength of community that relationships take root and support grows those who are fallen. The strength that allows them to rise again.