Holding Space – A Sacred Gift

I’ve noticed the expression “holding space” to be gaining popularity in the last few years. I’ve heard it so many times, and the practice comes so naturally to me, that I was surprised this term has caused confusion for a lot of people when it is mentioned in passing.

Let’s start with some examples of what holding space looks like:

holdingspacehands

1. I’m meeting with an elderly woman who has recently lost a substantial amount of vision. My purpose here is to help her regain independence by learning new ways to complete tasks in her everyday life. She says that is her intention for the meeting as well. Her real purpose is to “be heard.” Until I have shown that I can honor her as a human being as a whole, she doesn’t trust me enough to get to the business of learning new skills within a scary, disheartening situation. My agency may be paying me to teach, but my first job is to listen. I hold space as my client tells me not only the story of her vision loss, but the story of her life. I don’t zone out. I stay fully with her. I ask occasional questions to help me understand her underlying needs about the situation, but I don’t try to dominate the conversation. By the time we end the session, she feels respected, and trust has been established. We are ready to move forward as a team.

bed   2. I have recently called off my engagement. I am bouncing back and forth between anger and despair. My sister has come to visit with the main purpose of holding space for me during this difficult transition period. When our conversation leads to tears once more, she gently asks if I want to find solutions or if I just want her to hold space. Through the tears I gasp, “hold space.” I go into my room and throw myself on my bed and wail. She comes in and sits beside me. When I am ready, I take her hand. She silently comforts me for a long time until I am done. Instead of talking about moving on and that I’m better off, she asks what will help me feel better: hugs, watching a funny movie, singing, dancing…? She is honoring where I am and what my needs are.

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3. My 10 year-old son is sent home from school after trying to chase another kid down with a baseball bat. (This one was hard, but also really important. I would say in general, holding space for someone we’re really close to is hard because our emotions tend to get in the way of their emotions.)  When I get to the school I give him a hug. Once we get in the car, I ask him if he wants to talk about it. He shakes his head, and we drive home in silence. At home, he immediately goes to his room and slams the door. I hear him crying inside. Once (and only once), I ask him if I can come in, but he says no. I respect that. I honor his wishes, and I wait, holding space by giving him space.  When he is ready, we do have a long talk. Had I pushed, had I not held space for him, and made it clear that I was honoring where he was and his emotions, that talk would have been much more frustrating and much less productive for both of us.

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4. A small group is doing a ceremony for the healing of childhood trauma. Close friends have been invited to witness the the ceremony and support those taking part in it. Some people may be uncomfortable because they don’t know what to say or do or where to look. They do not need to say or do anything. Being there for their friends, fully present, and not turning away is exactly what is needed for those who are conducting the ceremony to feel safe and heard.

So what is holding space exactly? By examining the common threads in the above examples, I bet you can piece it together now.

Holding space involves:

Being fully present: Don’t let your mind wander onto what you are going to say next or what you could be doing instead. People can sense when you are with them and when you are just keeping up appearances.

Honoring where the individual is and their emotions: If they are sad, acknowledge they are sad. If they are angry, acknowledge they are angry. If they are hopeless, acknowledge they feel hopeless, without trying to change it.

Listening: Again, really listening, being present with the intention to understand, not only what they are telling you, but why.

Cultivating an environment of safety: Eliminate distractions. Go to a quiet room. Let them know you are turning off your cell phone. Assure them that you will keep what they are sharing between you (and keep that promise). Make it clear that you honor them for sharing what they choose to share, and that you’re not judging. If you have had a similar experience, briefly share it.

Allowing and encouraging the expression of strong emotions: Rather than trying to cheer up the person you are holding space for, reassure them by saying things like, “it’s okay to cry.” “I can see that you’re angry.” “You have every right to feel that way.” Notice that, “I understand” is nowhere in there. Although you may have a good idea what this person is going through, you have not walked in their shoes. Implying that you have, may be taken as the opposite of supportive.

Limiting verbal interjections: Holding space does not need to be entirely silent (although if the other person is not speaking, that may be a good idea). Affirmations that you are listening can be helpful – “uh-huh,” “okay,” “I hear you,” can be a way of communicating your listening and full presence. Questions to clarify can be helpful up to a point. Keep any sharing of similar experiences short and to the point.

Holding space does not involve:

Giving Advice: After they have had an opportunity to express themselves, you may ask if the person would like your perspective or help in finding a solution. Ask only once, and abide by their response.

Judgement: There is absolutely no point in suggesting how things could have been done differently or comparing the situation to anyone else’s. This will only make things worse. Make it clear that you accept them and care for them for who they are.

Trying to fix things: Again, you may offer to speak to someone or do some action on the person’s behalf, but it could very well be that all they need you to do is hold that space.

Your ego or how you would handle the situation in their shoes: Just because the person does not approach the situation the way you would, that is no reason to invalidate their approach. Just because they do not want your advice, your touch, or even your presence, has less to do with you than it does with them. Honor and respect where they are in that moment.

As I mentioned in the 4th example, sometimes we are asked to hold space within a group. This sometimes seems to be the unimportant, extraneous position when others seem to be doing more “important” things. Holding space in these situations can be just as powerful as in one-on-one situations. Most of the same guidelines apply: being fully present and honoring the process is a valuable contribution.

Holding space for someone is a gift. It is a powerful act. More than that, it is a sacred act. The next time you are called upon to hold space for someone, instead of squirming uncomfortably or wishing you could get on with your day, thank them for allowing you to give them this gift.

 

Resources

Being a Container: Holding Space for Others

http://www.dailyom.com/articles/2010/23597.html

Understanding How to Hold Space

http://www.spiritualawakeningprocess.com/2011/09/understanding-how-to-hold-space.html

 What it means to “hold space” for people, plus eight tips on how to do it well

by Heather Plett

What it means to “hold space” for people, plus eight tips on how to do it well

Holy Communion

 

Wow, I just looked at the date of my last blog post. I have been through a whole hell of a lot since I last made an attempt at blogging in September. Now that I am ready to share my story of the difficult time I have had in the intervening months, I thought that my first blog post back in the saddle would be about the pain that comes with truly healing deep wounds and what helped me to come back to the world.

As John Lennon told us, “life is what happens while we’re busy making other plans.” At the end of February, as I was preparing to dig in and really start putting myself back out there with a series of blog posts, life happened…Well, death happened too. The story I am about to share with you is both tragic and life-affirming. The fact that I am sharing it here, in the vast internet universe, is very much related to the pain and healing I have experienced in the last few months, but that’s another story…

me and Ash

On Thursday February 19th, I received a text from my sister Ashley Rae. She was 41 weeks pregnant. She and her mid-wife had agreed to induce labor by breaking her water the next day. This was so very exciting! We had been waiting these long weeks and months to meet Galen and welcome him into the world. The problem was that her roommate, who had agreed to attend to her six-year-old son, Aiden, during the home birth, had just gotten a job and was starting that same day. With excitement, I volunteered to make the two hour drive to Orlando to be with Aiden and Ashley in their home during the labor and birth. I decided to bring my 14 year-old daughter Elizabeth with me. Looking back, I am so grateful that I made those decisions to go to Orlando and bring Elizabeth with me.

We arrived on Friday afternoon about an hour after the amniotic sac had been ruptured. Ashley was 7 cm dilated and in full labor. She rushed out of the bedroom when we walked in and gave me a big hug and my birthday present. (She hadn’t been able to come celebrate my birthday with me at the beginning of the month because she was so close to her due date. She loves to give gifts, and she had made me a beautiful tarot reading covering the next year). Elizabeth stayed with Aiden in the living room, and Ashley invited me to hang out in the bedroom with her doula, her midwife Kelli, and the midwife’s assistant. We talked and laughed and hurried around making last minute preparations for the birth.

As the contractions became more intense, Kelli decided to check the progress of Ashley’s cervix and the heart rate of the baby. Ashley’s cervix had opened to 9 cm – only one more to go! But wait…no heartbeat. At first we thought, maybe it’s the equipment, or the baby’s position, or the placenta in the way…or something…it had to be something.

She had just had a full prenatal exam two days before, and everything looked great! There had been no complications with her pregnancy whatsoever. The decision was made to transfer her to the hospital. Elizabeth would stay at the house with Aiden. The midwife called the ambulance. It arrived quickly, and I was able to ride along. It was hard to leave Ashley alone in the back with the EMTs at such a stressful, and scary time for her, but we knew they needed to be able to do their jobs.

When we got to the hospital, the nurse who checked Ashley’s cervix said that it was back down to 6 cm. Worse yet, they still couldn’t find a heartbeat. They sent for somebody from the ultrasound department. Still nothing. Of course the technician wasn’t allowed to tell us anything. It was almost an hour from the time we arrived at the hospital to the time the doctor came in and delivered the sad news: Galen was gone. By that time Ashley’s midwife and doula had arrived as well. We surrounded her with our arms and our hearts.

Only a few minutes later, after Ashley had contacted her dad and her (other) sister, she posted this message to Facebook: “Galen is stillborn.” The outpouring of love and support was immediate. Among the first responses, one of Ashley’s friends posted a link to “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep,” which is an organization that provides free professional photography for parents who have lost a baby. One of us asked Ashley if she wanted them to come. She said yes without a moment’s hesitation. I’m not sure what I would have said in the same situation, but I’m so glad she invited them in. Ashley’s sister Crystal arrived, then the two photographer/doulas from Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep. Someone who knew Ashley (although not well) asked if she could join us. Michelle is not only a very talented and experienced birth doula and hypnotherapist, she also trained as a bereavement doula recently after experiencing a similar loss in her own family. With her joining our number, we had at times up to seven women present supporting Ashley as she labored to give birth to Galen.

It was a long, long night. During those interminable, exhausting hours, sometimes Ashley gave her full concentration to the rushes (as she prefers to refer to contractions), focusing on bringing Galen into the world. At times she despaired and would momentarily give in to the overwhelming pain and unfairness of the situation. At times she distracted herself and the rest of us with her musings and her irrepressible humor. But the times I will cherish the most are the times we actively shared our sorrow.

 circle of love

This picture was taken near the end of Ashley’s labor. It was a moment of grief and pain, but also of love and community. I had been sitting at Ashley’s feet, when a thought struck me suddenly and hard. I jumped up. Galen had come to this world to experience love and acceptance. “We need to tell Galen how much we love him,” I insisted. Even though there was no longer life in his body, his spirit was still with us. I knew in my gut, that we needed to express our love for him aloud to help ease his passing. Everyone gathered around and Michelle and I took turns expressing our love and appreciation for Galen.
It was important for me not to hold back my tears of loss for and pain for Ashley and for Galen. It was important that she not cry alone. It was important that we shared our tears. As I stood there in that moment, it struck me that this was the true definition of community…this connection and expression that so many of us long for and seek in the mundane world was fully present as we shared our grief. We were in communion, a holy communion with each other in that moment.

I began to sing a song that Ashley and I have sung together many times, a traditional Native American tune: The River is Flowing.

The River, She is flowing,

Growing and flowing.

The River, She is flowing down to the sea.

Mother carry me,

Your child I will always be.

Mother carry me down to the sea.

I repeated the chant over and over, and the others joined in. Once again, I felt incredibly blessed.

Shortly after that, Ashley made the difficult decision to have a c-section in order to deliver Galen. The hospital staff had been extremely kind and patient and did their best to honor Ashley’s wishes. They didn’t push the interventions that they probably saw as necessary, but let her come to her decisions in her own time.

Just like with Aiden’s birth, Ashley had been joyously preparing for a natural home birth. Even after she was told that Galen had already died in her womb, her initial intention was to give birth without any drugs or other interventions. As time dragged on and the pain increased without the compensation of new life at the end, Ashley elected to have an epidural for pain and later Pitocin to increase the contractions. By late in the morning on Saturday, the epidural was not able to block much of the pain Ashley was experiencing. She had gone through transition four times as the contractions strengthened and weakened over the course of time. She had gotten maybe three hours sleep through the course of the night. She was exhausted physically, mentally, and emotionally. It was time for Galen to be born.

Ashley asked Crystal to be the one person allowed to stay with her during the cesarean. After they had left the room, Kelli opened her arms to me and took a step in my direction. I ran to her and fell into her arms. I sobbed, letting my body release the tension and anxiety that I had been holding for all that time. I could share the heartache with Ashley, but it hadn’t been time to share the worry, the ache of my mind for what she had been through. But I had others to share it with me. Kelli and Michelle held me and sang to me and soothed me. They shared their tears and grief with me, just as I had communed with Ashley.

At 12:50 pm on February 21st 2015, Galen’s body was brought into the world. He weighed 13 lbs, 12 oz. It appeared from his condition that he had passed away some time ago, probably not long after Ashley’s prenatal visit on the 18th. While Ashley was still in surgery, Erin and Mackenzie from Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep were able to photograph Galen with a reverence and beauty that I am still in awe of.

 Galen

Shortly after Ashley was brought back to the room, she was able to hold Galen and spend time with him. She talked to him and kissed him and loved on him. Again I was struck by the beauty and love that was shared in that space.

Later that evening, after Aiden had met his baby brother, I asked if I could hold Galen. “Of course,” Ashley answered. He was so heavy, twice as big as some newborns. He had a little button nose and precious ears, beautiful fingers and toes. I was saddened that we would never see him grow up, never hear his voice, never get to know his unique personality. At the same time, I was so grateful for the time I had with him, grateful for this continued time of communion and oneness. I sang to him…

On the day that Galen was born,

On the day that Galen was born,

On the day that Galen was born

The angels sang and they blew on their horns,

And they danced, they danced,

They smiled and raised up their hands!

On the day, on the day that Galen was born!

I do believe the angels danced that day, for Galen and for all of us. The Universe rejoiced that Galen had no need to suffer in this lifetime. All of Creation rejoiced that the rest of us, in our suffering, became closer to understanding the Oneness that we are all a part of and an expression of. Galen’s life and death indeed brought us into a holy communion with one another and all of Creation.

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