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The Exquisite Witness

When we make space to talk about grief, we foster stronger connections with ourselves and others that remind us we aren't alone.

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A sharing circle at Experience Camps.
A sharing circle at Experience Camps.

We sat in a circle on a hard wooden floor, surrounded by the usual disarray of a summer camp cabin inhabited by a dozen boys. The few adults in the room spaced themselves out amongst the kids, ready to offer a comforting hand on a shoulder or a box of tissues. The boys stared down at their hands, fidgeting with stress balls we had passed around to give them somewhere to channel their nervous energy. 

We were at Experience Camps, a one-week summer camp for kids who had a parent or sibling that died, and this was the first sharing circle of the week. It was a moment they eagerly anticipated and dreaded at the same time. 

Many of them yearned to say the name of their person that died. To share the memories that replayed in their minds. To admit the feelings they couldn’t explain to anyone else. To release the pressure that builds up inside when you feel like nobody understands. Some of them knew that release would come with a flood of pain, followed by a flood of relief. Some were about to find out for the first time.

Then one by one, each boy had his moment. He would gather up his strength and speak his grief. 

My mom died of cancer. 

My dad died from an overdose. 

I miss her. 

I’m so mad at him. 

Saying the words out loud is momentus. But where those words land can be just as powerful for the person who spoke them and for those who bear witness to the pain they reveal. 

The term “exquisite witness” was described by Dr. Shep Jeffreys as someone “who enters the sacred space between two human souls having the deepest respect for the yearning, seeking, wishful hopes of the other to diminish pain and survive in a new world after a loss.” Put simply, it is someone who willingly holds space for someone else’s grief.

Each boy in that sharing circle was an exquisite witness to the others. Their ability to actively listen (which is no easy feat for most adolescent boys) was an important message in itself. By bearing witness to the grief of each speaker, they were saying, “we can handle this”.  They were telling each other, in a way that 12 year-old words wouldn’t convey, that they were not alone.

That is the greatest gift we can offer to the millions of people that are grieving right now, children and adults alike. There are no words that can fix their pain. There is no medicine or therapy that makes grief go away. What we need to do is make space for that grief, talk about it, and let them know they’re not alone. And in time, they can get on with living knowing there are people out there that are willing to hold a piece of that fundamental part of their soul.

Talking about grief can be difficult, but it can also be profoundly transformative. We recently invited people to talk about grief (TAG) and “tag” others to show that they care. Here are a few of the many stories we heard.

Professional baseball player Freddie Freeman was 10 years old when he was called to the principal’s office one afternoon at school. He already knew what they were going to tell him: his mom had died from cancer. The next year was incredibly difficult. He didn’t know any other kids who had lost a parent, and everything seemed to remind him of his mother. He remembers leaving the classroom many times throughout his sixth-grade year because he couldn’t stop crying.

Although it’s still hard for Freeman to talk about his mother, he believes it’s important for children who have lost a loved one to lean on someone they trust and share their story. “Speaking about my mother is my way of honoring her,” he says. “It was a big help to just talk about how much I miss her and the fond memories I have of her. So, talk about it. Don’t keep it inside.”

Freeman’s advice is something we have seen again and again during our sharing circles at camp. Sharing grief and bearing witness to grief helps us build a healthier, more positive concept of death and loss.   

Jamari has attended Experience Camps for many years. After his dad died, he lost interest in a lot of his hobbies. When he looked in the mirror, it was hard to recognize himself. “I was angry,” Jamari says, “but my camp friends helped me overcome a lot of things related to my grief.”

His favorite part of camp is the “invisible strings.” Based on the children’s book by Patrice Karst, the invisible strings is a simple message we share with campers: the power of their friendships will keep them connected when they’re apart and will bring them back together each summer. In other words, they’re never alone in their shared experience with grief. “It means that we’re always connected, even if you feel it or not,” Jamari says.

No matter if we’re children or adults, when we talk about grief, we are connecting with others and actively reminding ourselves that we don’t have to face loss without support. This is an important insight that singer-songwriter Andy Grammer has learned from talking openly about his mother’s death.

“The reason that I bring up my mom quickly with strangers is because it’s my deepest pain,” Grammer says. “If I share my deepest pain with you right out of the gate, there is a space now for you to share yours. We shouldn’t run from our grief. We need to lean into it and bring others into it with us.”

Unfortunately, the odds are growing that you know someone who is grieving some kind of loss this year. Talking about grief tends to get easier over time, but if you need additional help getting started, consider this discussion guide. We will all grieve at some point in our lives. Let’s come together to talk about grief — that invisible string that connects us — and foster deeper connections, with each other and ourselves. When we do, we can all be an exquisite witness.

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