“Empathy has no script. There is no right way or wrong way to do it. It is simply listening, holding space, withholding judgement, emotionally connecting and communicating that incredibly healing message of ‘You are not alone.’” – Brene Brown
At the YMCA Supportive Housing Campus (YSHC), we are witnesses. We celebrate move-ins, stability, small and positive steps forward, birthdays, anniversaries of being safely housed, everyday wins and knock-it-out-of-the-park successes. We see the comings and goings of residents – we smile, check-in and listen. Over time, an undeniable connection is formed through these interactions with quiet residents, those in need of greater support and those we see multiple times each day. With no limit on the length of stay, staff and neighbors create framily by witnessing years and years of life together.
We witness so much life at YSHC. While we serve people who are fragile and aging, we are sometimes witness to the end of their lives. Losing part of our framily is hard on everyone; we take time to grieve, understand the loss to our community and honor the person who has died.
To transition from interacting with the person to remembering them, we hold memorial services attended by staff, resident neighbors and sometimes family members. They're facilitated by volunteer pastors and provide a safe space to share remembrances as well as being together as a community. These services are poignant and essential for our healing as witnesses. At one memorial service, a veteran stood up to share. “He told me he loved me. Every time we said goodbye after talking, or even passing in the hallway, he’d say ‘Love you, buddy.’ I’d never heard that before, never had someone say that to me. It was powerful. He was a friend like no other.” The veteran openly wept in front of the group.
One resident signed out of the hospital against medical advice because he wanted to die at home. His framily sat with him in shifts through the day and night until he died. There was dignity for him in this final choice. Another resident gave staff handwritten notes that said ‘My forever home’; there is an amazing feeling to know that someone who had been vulnerable is now surrounded by support and care. We most recently lost a resident who had received a difficult diagnosis and spent his final weeks at the VA Hospital. He was resilient after trauma and a difficult past, and he had become true framily to us. We mourn that we did not have the chance to say goodbye.
In traveling the path of life together, we see that death is present, often it comes too soon and it is never an easy journey. Grief and loss are part of our human experience. We must consider that being witnessed is more powerful than being fixed.
“Storytelling gives us a way of reclaiming ourselves and reaffirming our connections with other people – those who listen to our stories and, by doing so bear witness with us.” – Victoria Alexander