Over the holidays, I did something that has become a wonderful twice a year ritual in my life. I flew out to California to visit my extraordinary 98 year old grandmother. She doesn’t always remember what she had for breakfast, but she can enthrall and amaze by recounting a lifetime of memories that include the first and last names of childhood friends, experiences in grade school, detailed recipes from holiday meals, exotic trips around the world, breaking the glass ceiling in every job she held, raising her children and being an integral part of nurturing two more generations in our family. Our conversations also include the latest topics covered in her current events club and the most recent book she read and reported on for her book club! When we arrive at her beautiful apartment complex for assisted living, she is waiting in the lobby and her first words, joyfully exclaimed, are always, “You’re here!”
My grandmother is one of the wisest people I know and I always get as much if not more out of the visit than she does. She relocated to California from Florida at 90 years old (which tells you a lot about her right there!) Every time I visit, as we walk through the halls and on the manicured grounds, my grandmother stops in front of every person she sees, takes their hand, and asks how they are doing. This small gesture of connection has an amazing impact: people smile, stand taller, seem so grateful to be “seen” and cared about. My grandmother has told me that she doesn’t want anyone in her building to feel “forgotten” or alone. She deeply understands and always modeled for me the healing power of connection, and on this visit, I saw it played out even more profoundly.
On one of our strolls, we heard an elderly woman from inside her apartment cry out, “Someone help me!” In an instant, my grandmother pushed aside her walker and practically ran into the woman’s apartment. As my kids looked for a nurse, I followed my grandmother and watched as she took the hand of this elderly, clearly disoriented woman and gently said, “I’m here. We’re getting you help.” The woman instantly calmed down and held on tightly to my grandmother’s hand. A moment later, a nurse named Raphael arrived. I recognized her as the wonderful woman who recently helped my grandmother while her husband was dying in hospice. They embraced and I heard my grandmother whisper, “I miss him.” Raphael gently said, “I know, sweetie, but your beautiful family is here and you can be with them.” Then Raphael said just as gently to the other woman, “It’s alright, sweetie, I’m here, you’re safe.” Later I asked my grandmother if she knew anything about the frightened woman’s situation and said, “I don’t know her at all.” My grandmother just knew that the woman needed to hear that she wasn’t alone.
This recurring theme of people saying, “I’m here” or “you’re here” moved me personally, and resonated for me as a clinician. With everything else that we do, we are ultimately saying to our clients, “I’m here. You’re not alone.” And they are grounded, soothed and comforted by the fact that “we’re here” for them. We “see” them and, therefore, can acknowledge and honor their thoughts, feelings, and experiences. When we help them with difficulties in their relationships, we often work on strengthening communication and emotional intimacy so they can experience significant others in their lives as being “there” for them, too. When we help clients connect with their current inner strengths and external resources it solidifies their empowerment: they recognize that they “are here” and matter as well. My visit to California again reminded me of the power of connection and relationship, and how healing it can be when we let our clients know that they are not alone. At the end of every visit, saying good-bye to my grandmother gets harder and harder to do. There is an unspoken sadness and fear: will this be the last time we see each other? And yet, our shared history and memories makes us so indelibly connected, I know that in some way, forever, we will feel each others presence and be able to say, “you’re here.”
Have you found that your clinical relationships with clients have helped to strengthen their own resolve to trust and allow others into their lives? Please share your story.