• shelisloterbeek

An Empathetic Witness


At a retreat recently with Beth Taulman Miller, she said these two words that have traveled with me in the last few weeks. The two words in some way, shape or form, have come up over and over and over. Empathic witness.


One particular story stood out to me. A friend and I were having coffee (and she’s given me permission to share this story) and just catching up over all the things. Lamenting getting older and all the necessary things that go with that. For her, on this particular occasion, it was an annual mammogram. We all know no one likes to do this - that’s nothing new, but on this occasion she was handed her gown, told to change and then sit down in the waiting area. As she went to put on the darling gown she realized it had no ties. (Just for reference, if you haven’t had a mammogram before, the ties go in the front and you wear nothing underneath.)


So with no ties, she goes to sit in the waiting area - the waiting area for everyone.


When she was finally called back for her scan, she informed the person that her gown did not have ties, to which the person responded they really weren’t necessary. NOT NECESSARY. Yes, perhaps to you tech person with all of your clothes on the ties were not necessary, but more necessary to someone else who may be feeling rather vulnerable without the entirety of their own clothes on.


All my friend was looking for was an acknowledgement that this, no tie on the gown situation, was NOT okay. She wasn’t even trying to change it at that moment, but just letting them know, so that some other poor soul didn’t have to go through the same uncomfortable situation. Sure the tech listened to her, but they did not HEAR her. There was no empathetic witness to her situation.


We all need an empathetic witness. Someone who not only listens, but hears and can empathize with the situation. Even if there is no resolve to the situation itself, no fixing anything, the fact that someone has listened and has affirmed you in your experience is all that matters. Sometimes that’s all we need - another person there to say “yep, that totally sucks.” An empathetic witness.


As a spiritual director I have the deep honor of sitting with others listening to their stories, being an empathetic witness to their lives. But anyone can be an empathetic witness.

  1. As you’re actively listening place yourself in that person’s situation

  2. Hear how they are feeling

  3. Notice how you feel

  4. Even if you don’t feel the same as they do, without trying to fix the situation or give advice, respond to the person affirming their feeling.

I believe that when we can be an empathetic witness we display the characteristic of God that Hagar saw and named God - El Roi - the God who sees. In an age when so many people feel invisible or unknown, the empathetic witness is El Roi, God in flesh.

We all have a story to tell. We all want to be heard. We all want to be known.


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