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Bearing Witness: As Leaders, Nurses and other Health Professionals

by | Nov 13, 2018 | 2 Comments

jackie and MomMy mom came to bear witness at my wedding 8 years ago. She also came to bear witness of my life in every home I lived in; from kibbutz, to college dorms, farmhouses, city apartments, to those that sat at the foothills of mountain ranges, and from coast to coast.

In every home I lived in, she tended my hopes, gave love to my dreams, and counseled me when I asked for it.
I wasn’t sure where I received this persistent passion as a nurse, to bear witness. 
I believe now, this must have come from her.

To Bear Witness

To Bear is to carry, to sustain, to bolster, to shelter and harbor, nurture, to dwell, to champion. And it may be one of the most essential and core aspects of the work we do.
The bearing witness we offer people in our care is to say, “I see you, the fear, the pain, the grief, you carry. Let me shoulder these with and for you, let me dwell here for a few moments. You are not alone.”

It can be easy to get lost in the more tangible tasks of our day, but it is so important not to let our work be represented or defined only by these things.

SunriseThese trusted moments between you and the person (and family) you are caring for, are not necessarily discreet and separate from the things you are doing.They are integrated in the same way a sunrise integrates with the environment it surrounds.

It’s the moment the still trees receive the light cast from the morning sun.

This is you as you move through your day. The way you touch, the way you speak, your countenance, is the cast of light you bring to each encounter.

We all bear witness, consciously or not. But a sunrise, intentionally witnessed and held, lingers much longer in your memory and shifts the direction of your day, than a sunrise missed, or worse, dismissed.

Nurse Theorist Rosemary Parse calls this Lingering Presence. It is the awareness that how you are, lingers with the person long after you left the encounter to go on to someone else.

In health care, most patients, staff and colleagues come to you because life is turned upside down. Big or small. Temporarily or for a longer time. And you may think, I don’t have time to stop and bear witness!

Bearing Witness when Busy?


Bearing Witness, is not always easy. It means stepping into another person’s suffering (or joy!). But as mindfulness teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn says (paraphrasing) we might as well be present in the moment, because we are having the moment anyway.

Begin to think of the sense of busy something your mind creates. Bear with me here. When you tell yourself you are busy, you create the cascade of the stress hormones to help you get through a busy, fight or flight moment.

Instead, think to yourself, “I have all the time in the world.” It sounds crazy, but try it. Make it an experiment. For one whole day, whenever you think time is short, tell yourself, “I am crazy busy!” Over and over.

Then on another day, keep telling yourself, “I have all the time in the world.” And notice the difference.

Your concern may be that you won’t get as much done. I’m willing to wager from experience and research, that you will.


When you sense the person needs you to bear witness, check in with yourself and ask, “
Am I really listening? Am I stopping the inner chatter or the assumptions I have about what this person needs?” 

The simplest way to answer that question is to pause. Breathe. Feel your feet on the ground. Then say to yourself, “I have time for them.”

You don’t need magic words. Just linger a moment longer with the intention to bear witness. They will feel you there.

What to do when distracted?

When you have moments of distraction, moments when you feel some inner turmoil and you have the thought that you prefer the task to the bearing witness, start with yourself. Simply bear witness to the moment you are having. Without judgement and with compassion. 

Because we all have those moments.
  And we will be there to bear witness for you.

With Love,

Jackie

  • Emily Mockett

    I love your idea of trying a day both ways (“busy” vs “all the time in the world”) and just noticing the difference.
    Awhile ago I started mentally labeling my life as “full”, instead of “busy” and noticed a difference in my body— a softening & relaxing sensation, with a heart full of gratitude, instead of a tightening & tensing sensation with a heart full of worry. Keep writing my friend!

    • Emily, love that you transformed “busy” to “full” and that you noticed changes. Great testimonial to the how and why placing our attention can make big differences. xo

Jackie Levin

RN, MS, AHN-BC, NC-BC, CHTP

(206) 304-7703

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