I love silence. Always have. Sometimes for the wrong reasons: to avoid saying something I’m afraid of saying; laziness; or to punish. But more often than that it is because I think it is so rich with possibility. It is peaceful. And it can be loud. It is a friend and an enemy; a gift and a curse. It is empty of sound and bloated with energy.
As a therapist I have found silence to be sometimes the most effective technique to facilitate my clients’ processing – it is in that space that the client will take themselves one step closer to their truth and there have been times when I’ve filled the silence and known that in that moment it was a mistake – that in doing so, we lost something.
Sitting in silence is an experience of searching. If we allow ourselves to be there, we allow ourselves to wander, to explore that unknown space which is so often filled with what we need. It is such a gift we can give ourselves, almost a sign of respect, to be patient, and just listen for a moment. So why do we so often fill in the silent spaces? What are we afraid will happen if they are left alone?
I have never wanted silence so much than in my experience of grief. Grief is so confusing, and all-consuming, that silence often feels like a necessity just to be able to breathe. And yet, I know that when the pain of the grief gets too much, the quickest route out of it is to talk through it. But it’s particular type of talk that does this. If I start explaining what I’m feeling – “it feels like a rock of poison in my gut” – though it can be a useful way to understand the grief, it’s an instant free pass out of the feeling of grief. If however, I simply express my feelings with words, for example “this hurts…I miss her so much…where are you Mama?” then I can stay with the feeling and in fact facilitate its expression even more.
This is a battle between head and heart – feelings and mind. In my research for my book Speaking of Death I found one of the most common experiences for the bereaved was that crying was a time they wanted silence the most, and yet found that it was always filled with words by whoever was supporting them. It is so interesting that whether we are the one hurting or the one supporting, when we want to escape the unknown, we use words to do it. It is as if we cannot bear to leave uncovered the unknown territory of the heart, where every messy feeling lacks a name. Something drives us to cover it up with words. In these moments, we want to grab hold of as much certainty as possible, and clutch on to the safety of language.
But language can’t save us. Not always. It is a great tool to defend against too much pain, one that we can be grateful for, and use – with respect, and wisdom. But at some point we will need to take a step in to the unknown, and confront those uncomfortable feelings. And silence is our friend here. Silence can really help guide us through the unfamiliar, to wherever it is we need to be.