Holding Space for You or Someone Else Who is Sick

As I have moved into various spiritual communities in my own journey, I heard this phrase of “holding space”.

This was not a new term – I heard it used in my own therapy sessions and have used it when I counsel others. In general, it means to stay present with a person and sit with them, acknowledging where they are as they struggled with life’s challenges.

And I was good at that. I knew how to listen to others, sit with someone through their tears, anger and pain.

As a pastor, I knew how to sit in the places of uncertainty, self-doubt and anxiety the kids in my youth group, the students in Bible study, and the adults in small groups. As a hospital chaplain, I could walk through the valley with the shadows of death with my patients and their families  who were dying of cancer or were in hospice care.

And even as I became medical mystery meat with years of chronic illness, I counseled others in support groups until my body gave up on me and I couldn’t hold space for or help anyone else but me. That’s when I really began understanding what it meant to hold space for others in my life and when I began to shift into wellness, healing and true acceptance. That is when I learned how to hold space for others in a way that didn’t leave me feeling resentful and under appreciated or overwhelmed and exhausted.

I am writing this to share what holding space means to me. I hope it helps you understand this phrase in a new way that allows you to find your balance, without overwhelm and guilt, as you love and care for the people in your life.

“Save a Seat for Me”

Remember when you were a kid and your friend was going to be late to an event so they asked you to save a seat for them? That is what holding space means, you are “saving a seat” for them, waiting for them to return to you when they are ready. This doesn’t mean you are worried about them, feeling anxious or fearful that they won’t show up.  It doesn’t mean you aren’t enjoying the event. You are continuing your activities and your life, knowing your friend is going to get to their destination when they are able and ready to sit beside you. You are simple “saving them a seat”.

As parents, everyday leaders and advocates, teachers, healers and helpers, we hold space for people we care about or feel responsible for naturally, almost without thinking.

But holding space for them doesn’t mean you are helping them do what they need to do to get to the event or feeling responsible for them if they miss the event. It doesn’t mean that you take on their burdens, emotions , decisions or responsibilities. If you are doing that, you are enabling them, being co-dependent, and not allowing them to be accountable for themselves.

Let’s look at how we can hold space for someone who is sick in our lives with boundaries that fill our tank, rather than ones that drain our physical, emotional and mental energy.

Holding Space for You or Someone Else Who is Sick

I was chronically ill with a long list of health conditions, that left me in pain 24-7 and on disability for more than 15 years. I have healed myself of most of my chronic crap , was able to stop walking with my cane and end my disability benefits.

But several years ago, I had one final lupus flare up that put me in the hospital for 14 days. When I got admitted to the hospital, my friends, co-workers and partner were all anxious for me. I had gained almost 40 pounds of water in my body (edema), and it wasn’t stopping. My doctor did a biopsy to discover that I had a new, more deadlier form of lupus in my kidneys that could lead to dialysis or even death.

As I updated my friends and family with this news, I could feel their worry, anxiety, fear and doubts. One of my friends kept asking me one question after the other about my diagnosis and prognosis – what does that mean, will you end up on dialysis, how long before they will let you go home, what if the treatment doesn’t work?

I finally asked everyone to “hold space for me” while I was in the hospital. And I made it clear to them what that meant.

When you are holding space for someone who is sick, in the hospital or struggling with chronic illness, it is easy to think that means having sympathy for them – worrying with them, venting with them, praying for them and asking a higher power to grant their wish to well again. But as Brene Brown says, holding space isn’t feeling sorry for them. It isn’t wishing for things to get better for them. It isn’t jumping in to try to fix things, or giving them unsolicited advice about how to fix it. It isn’t about sympathy but empathy and compassion. Empathy is sending the message you are not alone.

When I was in the hospital, I asked my friends and family  to “hold space for me” by doing the following. It is also how I was able to hold space for myself to release the 40 pounds of edema in my body and heal enough to go home. Ultimately we must see we are worth that time, energy and compassion too.

  1. Being Mindful and Fully Present with Me: Acknowledging my feelings, giving me permission to be vulnerable but not carrying or absorbing any of my emotional energy with sympathy, anxiety, fear or feeling sorry for me, seeing me as a ‘victim’ of my circumstances. I asked them not to try to fix or solve anything for me; that wasn’t their job. I didn’t want unsolicited advice. I asked them to walk beside me in this crossroads with empathy and compassion. Jon Kabat-Zinn says this what being mindful is all about, listening without judgment, agenda or expectation.
  2. Remembering and Seeing Me in My Best Light: I asked my friends to remember who I was; that I have been through this before and made it through and I will do it again. I asked them to remember I don’t give up easily, it is ‘just lupus’ and I am a fierce dragon with fire, passion and purpose. I asked them to see me getting the care and rest I needed while in the hospital, and enjoying it as I manifested reiki visits, puppies and hot cocoa every day. And, most importantly, I asked them seeing me coming home, recovering and continuing to heal what needs to be healed. This is how I was choosing to experience this hospital visit differently, this is what I was doing for myself too.
  3. Saving Me a Seat: I asked my friends and family to save me a seat. This is seeing my future self – at home, recovered and enjoying my life again even better than before. Save me a seat for when we get to hang out again , go to the movies, have lunch or coffee together, or riding our bikes in the park. Keep enjoying your life and see me getting through this, and ready to join you in that life when I am ready. Save me a seat. I was seeing myself this way too, I was holding space and a seat for my own future, full of possibilities.

Everyday I would look out my hospital window from my bed and daydream about my future, and all the possibilities ahead of me. Towards the end of my visit, I was able to sit in the window seat.

Healing is seeing yourself whole, filled with cracks of gold. When the Japanese mend broken objects, they aggrandize the damage by filling the cracks with gold. It is a process called Kintsukuroi. They believe that when something’s suffered damage and has a history it becomes more beautiful.

Seeing yourself in well-being doesn’t mean you are perfect and never will have problems again in your life. As Brene Brown says, “You are imperfect, you are wired for struggle, but you are worthy of love and belonging.”

See yourself being whole again. Accept  yourself for all of who you are and know that no matter what challenges or moments of contrast are ahead, you stand in your own power and ability. You are worthy of love and belonging. You know you can and will get through it; you see yourself in your highest light, filled with cracks of gold.

I hope this helps you see how we can hold space and care for others in our lives without absorbing anything ‘negative’, without feeling burdened, overwhelmed or drained.

We really can hold space and give from a place of overflow, balance and peace. It isn’t always easy, it definitely takes practice but it is possible.

What does holding space mean for you?