Beyond Blue

Beyond Blue


Just Listen

posted by Beyond Blue

I can’t count on my hand the number of times I’ve sobbed in front of a complete stranger because it’s happened more than a hundred times. But I can count the number of times I’ve been on the receiving end of that kind of grace: once.

The morning of my son David’s Halloween party I was running through the Naval Academy with my double stroller (with just Katherine onboard). I was rushed as always, trying to squeeze in six miles before showing up to the party for the games and costume parade.

“Excuse me!” I screamed to the guy in front of me, practically running him off the sidewalk. (The eating-disordered OCD in me was on a mission–fixated on getting to mile six).

The 60-year-old man, probably a math professor, turns around with a red face and tears running down his cheeks.

“My mother died this morning,” he said to me.



“Crap,” I thought, “there goes my six miles.” (I know, how self-absorbed can I be?) I panicked, not knowing how to respond or what to do. I was used to being the crier, not the consoler.

I studied his face, his gray beard, and I asked myself what was most helpful to me during those uncontrollable crying spells during the year of my horrible depression. Certainly not lectures. They were annoying and offensive. Not tips. Just more things to feel guilty about.

What comforted me most was when someone just listened, and didn’t say a thing.

“I suspect that the most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen,” writes Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D. in “Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories That Heal.” “Just listen. Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention. And especially if it’s given from the heart.”

I stopped running and went to hug the man. Then I waited there, and listened to his story for about ten minutes.

“My mother was the greatest woman who ever lived,” he said. “And that there (as he points to Katherine), that is the most important thing you’ll ever do in your life. So treasure your time with her while you have it.”

“When people are talking,” writes Remen, “there’s no need to do anything but receive them. Just take them in. Listen to what they’re saying. Care about it. Most times caring about it is even more important than understanding it.”

I remember that math professor and the lesson he taught me today as I write about how we might respond to the grieving families of the Virginia Tech victims. And I consider these words the theologian Paul Tillich wrote: “The first duty of love is to listen.”



  • http://HASH(0xd1bb1cc) Vivian Hiestand

    There is a down side to the celebrity depression issue. The folks you mention have the money and insurance coverage to obtain the best care. I can tell you from experience that it is often not possible for the average person to obtain medication or help for depression. And, if they do, they may be penalized for it if their circumstances change. When my husband’s cancer returned we actively battled it for 18 months. After about 14 months I went to my doctor and said, “I’ve run out of coping before I’ve completed the course.” She gave me anti-depressants, and they were a critical component of allowing me to support my husband as he completed his treatment and transitioned back into good health. However, the day after he took his last chemo treatment he was laid off work. That was when I discovered that I could not obtain any sort of private health insurance until I had been off anti-depressant medication for at least 6 months. Because of our situation, we had to continue the insurance we had under “COBRA” – and that meant we were paying $800 per month for health insurance for a family of four. We were fortunate because we could afford it. However, I learned that I will not go to a doctor for treatment of depression because I will be putting my ability to get health coverage in general at risk. I currently take St. John’s Wort, and it seems to work.But the celebraties have no comprehension that most people cannot obtain the help that they talk about with such enthusiasm – and that can make the depression even worse.Just a thought to bear in mind. May God bless you and yours, Vivian

  • http://HASH(0xd1bc434) eduse

    The mental health issue in the United States is obviously at a – I want to say a critical point – but it is far worse than that – We are losing bloodly battles and going down in defeat amidst our McMansions and other sybaritic pleasures. Whereas we – as the businesmen would say – are ignoring the bottom line…and as we allow economic aggression of a rabid nature – we also as a country close our eyes to the devastation those actions and policies have lead to. Mental health hospitals were closed 20 years ago (in S. California Camarillo was turned into a college campus…) but no alternative has evolved. There are drugs, but too often people have difficulty getting access to them or affording them. And if you admit to needing mental health treatment, you are branded as a medical pariah by the insurance companies and run the risk of being denied coverage/treatment altogether. This is a scandal. As I learned in anthropology class at college, there is an ideal world and then on the other hand the real world. (For ex. Princess Diana’s wedding was ideal and your wedding in the backyard is real…) And so, we have the ideal way mental health treatment is SUPPOSED to operate – which is a fairy tale – as opposed to the way it DOES operate in the real world of modern America. I go on a mental health bi-polar board at Web MD almost daily and hear day after say the trouble people have in getting adequately treated. And these are people who are motivated enough to come to ask for help. What of the others? The loners who are ignored and turn to violent fantasies to wreck revenge. Think of all the solitary players of bloody video games… There are millions. Where is the community, the compassion? We have to remind ourselves that this incident is an everyday event in places like Iraq. My husband is a chool teacher who has seen his students stomped to death and been in a school shooting, where the student commited suicide by cop. This is far less common than one would like to admit. So why are our heads in the sand? May this be a wake up call and have the national debate be not about gun control – but about mental sickness, rage, isolation,and everybody being blissfully and willfully ignorant and dropping the collective ball to the horror of us all. And the everlasting grief of all those who knew the victims….

  • http://www.jim-street.com jim

    You might be interested to know that Krista Tippet recently interviewed Dr. Remen on Speaking of Faith on NPR. You can get a download of that interview by going to Krista’s site. Google “Speaking of Faith.” Thank you for the reminder. As James writes: “Be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger.” Yep.

  • http://HASH(0xd1bd24c) anon.

    I for one know that it’s important to listen to another. I am a guilty one of not doing so..I’m human..who can say that they always listen, perhaps some but not that many. My heart goes out to those who lost loved ones. It’s not an easy thing to accept. In less than 7 years, I’ve lost many loved ones; both my parents, my spouse, and several other relatives. Life goes on but at a slower pace than before and perhaps not as easily. I truly believe that there has to be something more to life and death than we know or understand. I’m not sure that I do even though I would like to. I don’t think I ever will or ever was meant to. No one really does, do they? If they do, then they are much more knowledgeable than I ever was or ever will be. I just know that I am always working on learning to accept it for what it is…a mystery. I know that I will never give up on people or that which I believe in…my faith, my love for mankind in general, hope, trust and knowing that there is a God, at least for me, as He has blessed me as much as He blesses anyone else and I know this for certain. I have loved, been loved in return, and I still love those that are gone…but most of all, I love again and will always and I know that it is for the last time in my life..This is truly a blessing for it belongs to me alone and I cherish it…hopefully those that have just lost a loved one will realize the love surrounding us always, most of all spiritually, especially in such a moment of profound loss……….blessed be….

  • http://HASH(0xd1bf45c) Babs

    As I read more and more in the press about the mental illness of the shooter, I dread a further stigmatization of those of us who suffer mental illness and have family members also afflicted. I shudder to think about the “after the event” diagnosis that is inevitable. What if the diagnosis is the same as mine, my daughter, or grandaughter? My sweet grandaughter is in second grade. She is on an antidepressant that has helped her so much over the past year. She is such a happier child than she was merely eighteen months ago. How stigmatized will she be? Depression runs on both sides of her family. Her parents are shielding her from the present news, but she is a smart, very perceptive child. Thank God, if she has questions, she is not afraid to ask them. Before anyone jumps on me for saying she is on an antidepressant, let me say that prior to the use of medication, everything was tried over several years, but she continued to get worse. Her mom is an educated, stay-at-home mother and followed a counselors advice on using behavior modification. Still, she was down on herself, acting out impulsively and agressively. That has been reduced by 80% easily. She smiles now, has friends, and knows that she is a happier person. While my husband and I had initial misgivings about her taking a medication, the turn-around was so pronounced and such a relief to her, that we now believe it was the right thing to do. She sees a therapist as necessary, but the medications are monitored by the only doctor in the area who specializes in mental health conditions in children. I have not been “in-the-closet” about my condition. I think it helps to be able to talk about it with colleagues, (at the proper moment) who see me as competent and caring. I hope that my small statement changes minds about the mentally ill. Years ago, there was a tremendous stigma attached to cancer. It took a few prominent women speaking out to change the public perception. I hope that those who have the power to attract media attention, will have the courage to speak out, especially now.

  • http://HASH(0xd1c0324) HASH(0xd1c027c)

    I looked up the word empathy after I read your article on listening. I say a parrallel in the fact you were running. Sometimes we run through life in order to accomplish our agenda and forget we are on the planet with others that need to feel a part of something larger. Society can be a village that reaches out to comfort those that mourn or be a way for those that are frustrated in their attempts to adjust to a new culture. Those that come to this country to pursue the “great american dream” need help to deal with culture shock in college and in their neighborhoods. Listening is great, but empathy goes one step further.

  • http://HASH(0xd1c0fac) Suzanne

    I, too, have been fortunate to have a handful of genuine friends who will listen during moments of grief or anxiety, and let me vent out my problems by giving them words. I have also been on the “receiving end,” and I feel I am being used by God to allow these people (some, strangers like written about) to express verbally their pain and their angst to someone who will ONLY listen, without judgment, without “tips,” without interruption, as the words come (s)tumbling out in their dispair. The very experience of being “a shoulder to cry on” enhances my spirituality, and allows me to just “be there” in the hour of need. If someone had just “been there” for the shooter, or maybe just said, “God loves you, and so do I,” the massacre might not have happened. But, then, it has been expressed in media that he was mentally disturbed, and even when sent to counseling, did not improve. Our hearts must go out to the lost souls in this world; there are enough believers that I feel this can, and must, be done. The real tragedy at Tech is a “lack of communication.” My pain and my prayers go out to the families of the victims of this tragedy, and I know that God will heal in time, in His time, and that they will ultimately be comforted.

  • http://HASH(0xd1c12d0) Donna Navarrete

    I applaud this lady for realizing that the world is not about just meeting our needs and what we want, but to have enough love in her heart that she reached out to the man whose mother had died. May God bless her and the gentleman abundantly.

  • http://HASH(0xd1c31e8) BREATHOFLIFE

    HI,I’VE READ ALL THE NOTES OF CONCERN,I FEEL BAD FOR ANYONE THAT LOSES A LOVED ONE. THEIR IS NOTHING I CAN DO BUT PRAY FOR THE FAMILIES THAT LOST SOMEONE. ITS TO LATE TO PRAY FOR THE YOUNG MAN THAT’S DEAD. BECAUSE HIS FATE IS ALREADY SEALED. IT SOUNDED LIKE HE DID HEAR ABOUT GOD AND DID’NT RECEIVE THE IMFORMATION CORRETLY. WAS I MISTAKEN WHEN HE SAID THAT HE DIED THE WAY JESUS DID FOR MANY PEOPLE? NO! HE TOOK MANY LIVES.ONE OF THE COMMANDMENTS SAY THOU SHLAT NOT KILL. THEIR IS NO WAY TO GET AROUND THAT. PEOPLE CAN HIDE THE COMMANDMENTS IF THEY WANT TO IT’S STILL THE SAME.IF PEOPLE THINK THAT IF THEY HIDE RIGHTEOUSNESS FROM VIEW THAT PEOPLE WON’T KNOW IT’S THERE. BUT THE FACT IS GOD CANNOT BE HIDE. I WOULD LIKE TO GET INTO THIS A LITTLE DEEPER. BUT IF THEIRS MORE QUESTIONS ABOUT SERVING GOD. I COULD HELP.

  • http://HASH(0xd1c3918) VEE

    WOW!!! LISTEN: WHAT I JUST READ MADE ME THINK AND THINK HARD. I AM A PERSON WHO GIVES GREAT ADVISE(I WAS TOLD) BUT CANT HELP MY SELF. i HAVE LEARNED OVER THE YEARS THAT WE HAVE TO TAKE TIME AND NOTE THAT EVERONE IS DIFFERENT AND WE ALL HANDLE THING IN OUR LIVES DIFFERENTLY-I AM TRULY SORRY FOR ANYONE WHO HAS LOST ANYONE THEY LOVE . BUT TO LOOSE SOMEONE IN SUCH A WAY(THE SHOOTING IN VA) IS HEART BREAKING .I PRAY FOR THEM ALL.

  • http://HASH(0xd1c4880) Robin Johnson

    In the book, “Good Grief, this quiet type of listening that’s just being there for someone who’s loved one has recently passed is called “sitting shiva.” It’s traditional in the Jewish culture. Years ago, when we lost my ex-husband’s brother to a gunshot wound, (murder or suicide, we’ll never be sure which), the people in the town in which we lived knew how to come to us and be just quietly there. It’s the best thing they could have done! No sermonizing, no preaching, not even much talk about why; they were just there for us. What a priceless gift! Thank you for taking time to do the same for this man. Listening with your heart is a priceless gift! Robin Hummingbird Songs

  • http://HASH(0xd1c5668) Pamela

    It is so ironic that this would be in my e-mail today. I encountered a similar sitution with my sister who lives out of state and rarely visits me or calls outside of an engagement or crisis involving other family members. In my naive manner I keep confiding in her thinking she will be there for me and repeatedly she responds to me as if she’s offended that I would reach out to her, ridicules me for reacting…in her way she feels she’s admonishing me but she’s really hurting me. To top it off she never returned my call however called our mother this morning (long distance) and told her why she couldn’t call me back. I just said to my husband this morning that if we could embrace the concept of listening rather than judging we would learn so much and be that much more supportive than hurtful. Thank you for this confirmation.

  • Amalia Gonzales

    What if a friend just wants you to listen to her and she can’t or doesn’t want to listen to you?

  • deborah

    i love listening to people and i understand it is good to listen also is shows a great deal of love and care to listen to someone but i’m always not happy when orders does not listen to me and take me for granted it causes me a lot of pain and i always feel chited, hated and unwanted. what do i do?

  • CLeo

    Ok, I’m Latin and we do cry easily and openly. Now you make me think about this. How many times I’ve cried in front of others, how many times others have cried in front of me…? Many, many times. Sometimes a person begins a sentence with aplomb and ends it in a sob. We think that it’s good to cry, just like it’s good to laugh, both purge the system.
    I’ve cried many times in front of others, but I’ve also found so many that feel uncomfortable, I’ve seen them looking embarrassed for me or maybe for them. Others have overwhelmed me telling me not to cry that everything will be OK. Well both approaches leave me feeling as if I’ve done something wrong. I think the best experience was when I called a friend long distance and began to tell her something then I heard her crying over my pain…we both cried in the phone for some time, my husband wanted to know why I was making a long distance call and crying and sobbing, and hearing the same in return. “But you’re not saying anything!” He doesn’t understand, he doesn’t know…

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