Bearing Witness

She told me that she witnessed her mother’s death last week from 7500 miles away, over Skype. I held my heart open to her as she fell deep into her own well of sorrow and tried to make sense of life without her mother.

It was late afternoon when I first heard the woman sobbing from the back of the antique store as she spilled her story to the shopkeepers. She was forced to seek comfort from strangers as the grieving woman was without friends in the area. The shopkeepers were patient with her story but stiff and uncomfortable, and the well-meaning wife in an attempt to placate assured the woman that her mother was now in a better place. As if that would quell the tears and pain. As they spoke I quietly left the store to get away from my own initial discomfort, but a few steps out I paused as my own fear passed and I knew it was exactly my place to reach out to the woman. I felt I couldn’t say anything that would comfort her but, if she would allow, I could hold space for her to grieve and I could bear witness to her pain with a tender ear and open heart.

I stood on the corner debating my best approach when the woman emerged from the store. She looked to be about my age though her oversized sunglasses and delicately flowered hijab protected her from direct assessment. She moved slowly down the street and away from me, and I felt myself pulled into action. I followed her slowly as she wandered across the road, down another block, then across a large empty parking lot. I caught up to her as she crossed a side street and I stopped her with a gentle “excuse me.” 

She cried when I said that I’d overheard her story in the antique store and I was very sorry for her loss. Trembling and sobbing, she told me how alone she was and that she didn’t know how she would go on. Her mother was her best friend and confidant, they spoke on Skype every day—sometimes several times a day. She shared everything with her mother and they were deeply connected. This woman had lost a piece of herself with the death of her mother.

I asked her to share more about her mother and the woman described a kind-hearted and dedicated woman who protected animals and strangers as fiercely as she defended her own children. She told me about her mother’s courage and generosity and it was clear to me that she’d raised her daughter to be a strong and independent woman who also stood up for what she believed in. It was an honor to hear her story of maternal love and devotion as well to openly share the depth of her grief. I wished I could fix it for her even though I knew that journey back to wholeness would be hers alone.

Her mother had a long-term illness and the woman had recently contemplated returning home to be by her side but her mother steadfastly objected. For political reasons, it was unsafe for the woman to be in her home country any more. She couldn’t return for the funeral or to embrace the familiar comforts of her family. So she walked these streets, searching for someone to share in her pain and for a way to come to terms with her loss.

I asked permission to hug her and she nearly collapsed, sobbing in my arms. We stood on the street, two strangers now bound by loss and story, until the woman suddenly straightened up and pulled away. I thanked her for allowing me to witness her story and asked if there was anything else I could do. She took my hands and asked me to pray for her mother so I did in the best way I know how, through art. I prayed for Mother Earth and Father Sky to watch over both the woman and her mother, and to bring them each the comfort they deserve.