Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The Language of Hope ...

To hope means to be ready
at every moment
for that which is not yet born.

Erich Fromm

Last night, I had dinner with a friend who is 96 years old, functionally blind and grieving the recent death of her dear husband and primary carepartner. As we sat together, I wondered what on earth I could say that would provide even a little comfort. I didn't want to minimize or try to "fix" her grief but I did want to offer a ray of hope in the darkness of her shock and despair.

Knowing from my own experience that listening can be a better gift than speaking, I held her hand and just sat, witness and companion, as she talked about the shock of her husband's diagnosis and death. Tears filled her opaque eyes and she whispered about not wanting to live to be 100. She spoke about not being able to believe that her husband is gone. "I don't think about it for a while and then it hits me all over again." After a while, she stopped talking, squeezed my fingers and thanked me. "It helped." 

I went home having said very little other than to reflect back her experience and to gently offer my belief that, with time, some light would slip back into her inner darkness. It was this comment that made her tears spill over. Why? I think it was because I had inadvertently offered her the best of gifts - the gift of hope.

While hope is defined in different ways, seen as both belief and emotion, and valued or dismissed by various faith traditions and philosophies, I think of it as a life-raft in the stormy seas of sorrow and despair. Each of us has the ability to learn the language of hope so we can support our grieving families, friends and acquaintances as they struggle amongst the waves of chronic sorrow or bereavement.

The language of hope is subtle and gentle. It speaks obliquely of light in the darkness, easing of pain and finding strength to continue. If used sparingly (careful listening is still most important) and with sensitivity, it can whisper of possibilities of something new, a phoenix rising, eventually, from the ashes. 

So, how do we learn this language of hope? Well, first by becoming aware - noticing what falls flat and what sparks a positive response when we attempt to offer hope to others or when others offer it to us. Secondly, we can read about the nature of hope and try using some hope responses similar to those listed below:

About the present:
Let's just get through this crisis.
Let's take one thing at a time.
Let's do this and call it an act of hope.  
Language of yet:
You can't figure out what you want just yet, but you will.
We don't know what to do about this yet, but we're working on it.
You're not ready to do it yet, but the time will come. 
About the future:
It will look clearer when you've had some sleep.
I will find someone who can help you.
This problem is solvable.
Language of when:
When the sadness eases ...
When you're sleeping better ...
When you feel better ...
When we figure out what to do about this ...
Language of I believe (confidence backed by experience):
I know others who have made it through this so I know you can too.
Give it time. I believe you'll feel stronger as time goes on. 
Finding hope in the past:
Tell me about a time when things worked out better than you expected.
Tell me about a time when you thought something was impossible and it worked out.
Tell me about a time when you weren't in control and things turned out well anyway. 
These hope responses are based on the work of Wendy Edey, MEd, a hope researcher at the University of Alberta. Her handouts and the University's Hope Studies Central database can be found here


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