The Eloquence of Silence

2016 March 23

Just the two of you but nothing is said between you. There should be so much to say. So much you wanted to say. So much you thought about saying on the drive over to visit. But here you are, sitting only feet from your loved one and there is nothing but silence. You can’t help but panic as your muscles tense and your worst thoughts begin to take over: “Is everything okay?” “Is she mad at me?” “Did I do something wrong?” “It was a mistake to visit.”

For most of us, silence is one of the great social fears we experience when in the company of another person we care for.  Most of us are taught that if we don’t have anything to say, then we shouldn’t say anything at all.  It’s no surprise then that as adults, all forms of silence are almost always perceived as awkward. So, it’s no wonder that when we are physically sitting next to someone we know and care for and experience moments of silence, we think something is terribly wrong because we mistakenly believe that:

If we’re not talking, we’re not relating.

If we’re not talking, they must be upset.

If I don’t have anything to say, I shouldn’t have come to visit.

If he/she doesn’t have anything to say, I shouldn’t have come to visit.

Talk is the only way to become close to someone.

Each of us is highly educated in knowing how to make sense of others’ words. Unfortunately, no one taught us how to interpret others’ silence or how to be with another without having to say a word. As caregivers, silence is a language we need to understand because it is so often an essential part of our relationship with those who are tired, ill, or unable to speak.

The next time you experience interpersonal silence keep in mind the following communication principles:

Silence can bring you closer to another. When you share a view of the sunset with someone, the awe of the beauty before you transcends anything you could say. Simply sharing that moment together, without the need for words, inspires a shared, deep appreciation of the moment. So why not allow the shared moments of silence bring you and your loved one closer together as you share in the miracle of co-presence. What makes interpersonal silence seem so awkward is our expectations that every second has to be filled with words. Being physically present with your loved one says more than you could every put into words. Awkwardness quickly flows into appreciation when we trust ourselves in knowing that what we are sharing together in physical presence is more important than anything we could say

Silence can be an incredible interpersonal gift. We’ve all been in the company of special friends or loved ones for whom we felt the luxury of not having to fill every moment with words. Knowing we don’t have to talk makes these relationships special because we “get” one another even in the absence of words. Likewise, your level of comfort with silence when in the company of an ill loved one can give them the greatest gift of all—permission to be themselves in your company. They don’t have to put on a show. They don’t have to “get up” for meeting you. They can be authentically themselves. Knowing they can sleep peacefully in your company or listen to you without having to give you verbal feedback means you will be different than most others whose presence requires them to be something other than they are feeling or experiencing. Your comfort with silence is an incredible gift of peace.

Silence can heighten appreciation of the moment.  When we let go of the need to fill every moment with words, we become more perceptive of the person you are sharing space with. We become more aware of the setting we are in. And we become more mindful of our very presence. The moment is allowed to speak to us when silence exists.  When we become comfortable just sitting with another without speaking or being spoken to, awkwardness falls away and deep appreciation fills our senses.  The smell of our loved one’s perfume is noticed. The deep rhythmic breathing of our loved one’s breath becomes a lullaby. The shape of our loved one’s mouth becomes more pronounced in our memories. And the touch of their cold skin against our warm fingers blends into a perfect union of temperature.

When our words are allowed to rest, our other senses come alive, filling in the gap with understanding that is as valuable as anything we could say. When our expectations for words is replaced with the belief that silence can bring us closer together, we will see, hear, and experience moments of eloquent connection that we may not have been able to achieve when too preoccupied with filling silence with words.

One Response leave one →
  1. March 26, 2016

    This is so beautiful and so true. I remember being at a conference about technology and caregiving some years ago. IPads had just come out and one participant related that his elderly mother had one, as did his sister who lived in another state. His mother and sister turned on their IPads a couple of times a week, and they knit. They knit together in silence as if they were in the same room. It was very companionable and affirming of their connectedness and love. Isn’t that wonderful? 🙂 Thank you for this reminder of the beauty of silence.

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