Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Listening is Hearing More than the Words - Eleanor Shepherd

Listening is more than hearing the words.  I was reminded of that again last week, when I was working as a Chaplain in a residence for seniors. I was passing through a lounge on my way to my office.  One of the residents, a woman who is blind was reclining in one of the large lounge chairs.

She was the only person in the room.  Hearing my footsteps, she called out, "Can anyone help me?" 

Pausing beside her chair, I asked, "What would you like, Miss Smith?" 

"Where am I?" She asked.

"You are in the lounge." I responded. 

Then for some reason I sensed that I should go further. 

"Is that the answer you were looking for?" I queried. 

She hesitated a minute and then said, "No."

"What do you want to know?"  was my reply. 

"I want to know where my brother and sister are."  I knew immediately that this was her real concern."

Then something clicked for me.  This woman must ask the staff members of our residence at least ten times every day, "Where am I?" 

The staff usually responds by giving her the name of the residence. I have never been sure that was what she wanted to know. 

One day in the dining room she asked me where she was.  I responded by asking her where she thought she was.  Her response immediately was the name of the residence. She knew all the time.  What she did not know was how to ask the questions she really wanted to ask. " What has happened to everyone who belongs to me? Where have they all gone?  Am I now alone in this world?" 

I suspect that she has been trying to reorient herself to her current situation. When she asks, " Where am I? " she wants to know her context. She wants to know where her place is in the world.

She likely defined herself by her relationships, as we often do.  However, these days there is no concrete evidence that these relationships are intact.  She is not aware if the relationships are still valid for her as she is unaware and unable to read any correspondence with her siblings.   "Where are they for her?" She may be asking herself.  If they have gone somewhere why have they not taken her with them? 

When I heard her question I tried to give an honest answer, so I told her that I did not know where her brother and sister were, but I would try to find out. 

 "Will you? " she asked. 

Assuring her that I would do my best to try and find out, her relief that she might be able to get answers to her questions was visible in the way that the tension seemed to dissipate from her body as she leaned back in her recliner. 

As soon as I had a few minutes available I headed for the nursing office where the records are kept to see what information I could find out about Miss Smith's family. The only clue I could come across was that the contact person for her was a nice living in another province.  I jotted down the phone number of the niece, so I could give her a call and find out about Miss Smith's siblings. 

Most of the afternoon Miss Smith remained in her large reclining chair dozing. However, at one time when I was passing by.  Hearing my voice she cried out, "You are the one who is going to help me, aren't you." 

"Yes, Miss Smith," I assured her.  I will do everything I can to get this information for you."  Content, she settled back in her chair. 

As I reflected on our conversations, I was so glad that I had been able to ask her if I was really answering the question that she was asking.  It opened the door for genuine dialogue that may help all of us to become more sensitive to her real needs ad those who in our home are living out similar reorientation of their lives.  That is why institutions like ours exist to help people to make sense of life when much of what they have known and loved is gone, and to know they still have a place and are valued. Crucial to that is to hear more than the words. 
Word Guild Award
Word Guild Award


Anonymous said...

Oh Eleanor, I so wanted to find out if the woman found her family. Beautiful message here.

Donna Fawcett

Peter Black said...

Ooh, another post to challenge me to increase attentiveness in overcoming my poor listening skills.
A truly arresting episode from your ministry Eleanor -- thank you.
Like Donna, I wonder, too.
(A sequel, perhaps? ;) )

Eleanor Shepherd said...

Donna and Peter,

In subsequent converstions, I discovered that the brother and sister had preceded her to Heaven, where she has now gone. I am happy to think she has again found them.

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