Book Review: Holding Space, on Loving, Dying, and Letting Go

I’ve written before about Holding Space and how much I suck at it. From an early age, I was socialized to be a caregiver, a problem solver, a person who jumped in and helped. This idea of sitting in solidarity, of holding space, has been such a huge learning experience since my diagnosis in 2017 with Stage IV Metastatic Breast Cancer (MBC).

And so I’ve taken steps, as much as I can, to learn more about this idea of holding space. One of the recent books that has really resonated with me is Holding Space; on Loving, Dying and Letting Go, by Amy Wright Glenn. You can learn more about the author here:

I’ve pulled some meaningful quotes from the book to talk about from my lens, but you should really do yourself a favor and read the entire book. The author includes stories as illustrations and pulls from her own background to illuminate her topic. The fact that she also comes from a pretty repressive religious background, as I have, makes her perspective resonate with me even more.

Sometimes all one can do to make things “all right” is to hold gentle space for the broken, painful pieces that will never be all right and will never be repaired, at least in this lifetime.

While I have learned more and more over the last five (5) years since my diagnosis is that there are those painful pieces that will never be all right. I’d clung to this belief for most of my life, that there is a solution to everything. To learn so definitively that there are often no solutions has shocked the foundational of so many of my beliefs. And yet, that also means that there is a lot less guilt for those things that cannot be solved.

Death inevitably stirs irrational waters. Death can summon long-buried memories and resurrect old hurts. Whether a relationship is ending or a physical body is dying, those who witness the passing are often triggered.

I’ve experienced this most painfully with family members who either made commitments or who I expected to be supportive. The triggers others experience are often so foreign and so inexplicable that the person at the center of the crisis, the person needing help is left baffled, betrayed and just floundering. Attempting to understand these reactions has been futile, for me, and has left me with a lot of hurt to carry in the middle of dealing with my own death.

We bring our entire complicated, beautiful, and shadowed selves into each moment. Holding space for all aspects of our own being as we strive to be present to another in distress requires the willingness to make mistakes, even as we pray.

As I’ve struggled with my own crisis, my own impending death, my own anticipatory grief, the more I’ve found that I have to give to others in crisis. Yes, there are the inevitable comparisons, but in truth, I believe true empathy comes from suffering. There is a reason that people who have experienced great loss become our best champions, the ones who hold space, and who keep our deepest selves safe.

We are called to hold space, not to interpret events for others.

This is a mantra that I have to repeat for myself on the regular. I often take on more than is mine, take responsibility for outcomes or even to interpret or understand events when it is not my place. Some of this is my upbringing, my socialization, my training as a lawyer and a lot from my personality. Setting these instincts aside is hard but necessary.

1, Let go of beliefs about death or a possible afterlife. Whether you are an atheist or a theist, whether your meaning-making is rooted in humanism or in the affirmation of a transcendent power, just for a moment, suspend your own worldview.

2. Listen carefully for the words that carry the most emotion.

3. Repeat these words back to the bereaved. For example, say: “You felt she was right there with you.”

4. Gently encourage further expression. “Tell me more.”

5. Listen again.

I like this list — as most of you reading this blog probably already know, I like lists generally. Lists help me stay organized, stay focused. This list, though, is more about letting go, about suspending that which prevents us from being truly present and holding space for someone else.

So often, resistance to sorrow expresses itself as anger. It’s helpful to remember that rage and anger are often surface emotions. Akin to the tips of icebergs, they can contain a depth of grief and profound heartache beneath the surface.

This is probably one of the best statements of what I struggle with I’ve ever read. Anger is an easy, accessible emotion for me. It’s hard for others, for me, to see past that tip of the iceberg to what is beneath, to what is really going on. And there’s a lot going on.

I’ve discovered over the last five (5) years that there is no one true answer for everyone, but we can always lead with compassion, with holding space, with love. At the end of the day, that human connection is truly the only thing that lasts. It’s hard. It’s ambiguous. It’s subjective. It resists measuring.

And yet it is the most vital.

7 thoughts on “Book Review: Holding Space, on Loving, Dying, and Letting Go

  1. Deeply profound and beautiful. Abigail when I write a post about suffering can I use your words in a quote: “I believe true empathy comes from suffering. There is a reason that people who have experienced great loss become our best champions, the ones who hold space, and who keep our deepest selves safe.” I’m not sure when I will post it or what else I will write but I’d like to use this and site you as the one who said it.

    Let me know, and thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

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