I Don’t Know What to Say. By Keith White

We were sitting together either side of the fire and chatting together. It was a few months after the last time we had met.  Reuben, as I will call him, had driven down from East Anglia to Mill Grove, and we began to catch up on news over a cup of tea.  He and his siblings had lived at Mill Grove as children during the time I was at university, and we had spent many years playing together, sharing holidays, and growing up.

He was always fond of my father, and I’m not sure he has ever got over the loss he experienced when my dad died.  But slowly over the years he has come to share more deeply with me in what I suppose is a relationship similar to that between a younger and older brother.  There were many things we did together, and lots of shared experiences and places, but the memories that we always hold dearest are those of summer holidays spent on a farm in Essex.  The summers seemed endless while we were there, and it still sounds like a boyhood dream: land-rovers, combine harvesters, tractors, rabbit hunts, barbecues, den-building, the fresh smell of litters of newly-born piglets among the straw, tennis and putting on the lawn, and games of hide-and seek that took us into nooks and crannies redolent of some of the stories of Enid Blyton.

From time to time as we sipped our tea, we returned to these nostalgic memories, and those with whom we shared them.  But a shadow hung over the conversation.  His brother-in-law had died suddenly since we had last met, and that loss had upset him, and to some extent destabilised him.  A host of emotions, feeling and associations jostled and tumbled around untidily in his mind and heart.  Sleep had become difficult. He felt deeply for his newly-widowed sister and her son, and he missed a brother-in law whom he respected and admired, and whom she had loved dearly.

After the funeral he would phone her regularly to assure her that he was thinking of her.  But then he gradually began to stop phoning her.  This is when he said to me: “The reason I don’t phone her is that I don’t not what to say”.  He felt deeply for her, and was sometimes reduced to tears, so it was not that he lacked feeling.  The problem was deeper.  It was as if he stood at the rim of a crater where a bomb had gone off, and there was a huge gap where formerly there had been life, laughter and shared activity.  He knew his sister was still grieving deeply.  Put all this together and he simply did not know what to say.  In fact, he was not sure there was anything to say.

At this point he reminded me that his sister had been with him (and crucially, at his urging), on the day her husband died.  After a happy day with her brother, she returned home, only to find her husband dead upstairs.  My younger brother simply could not get over an enveloping sense of guilt that was associated with a sense that he had in some way caused his brother-in-law’s death.  Had his sister not been with him, perhaps she could have done some emergency first aid.  It mattered not that nothing and no one could have done anything to bring him back to life. He was left with this death on his conscience.

It doesn’t take much imagination to realise that our own conversation slowed down at this point.  I was not at all sure what if anything to say, and he was visibly shaking.  And so it was that we spent some time in silence.  But it was not uneasy or uncomfortable.  We knew each other well enough to be relaxed in each other’s company without the need for words.  We had spent time on the mountains in Scotland and North Wales together and he knew that sometimes togetherness is best experienced and expressed in a silent sharing of the scents, breezes, textures of rocks and flora, and the outlines of ridges and valleys.

But then it dawned on me that we were recreating something that he wanted to do with his sister, but couldn’t do, because their communication was by telephone.  Had he been physically with his sister he could have shared silence and tears with her, possibly smiles through the tears too. But on the phone silence is difficult, if not sinister.  Hence his observation that he didn’t know what to say made complete sense.  Sometimes there wasn’t anything to say. And that is when being alongside someone, in their presence, perhaps holding their hand or giving them a hug, is the only way of communicating what you mean.

This gave me cause to reflect on what we might call counselling or therapy.  So often there is the implicit assumption that it has to do mainly with words.  That may or may not be so, but it is pretty evident that there will be times when words will be inadequate and inappropriate.  And it is the wise and sensitive counsellor or therapist who knows that not only is there nothing to fear at such times, but that they are to be welcomed and treasured.  It is perhaps akin to the seminal discovery that music is not simply about notes and sounds, but in some way rooted and set within the context of silence.  A rest, or a pause between phrases or movements, may be the still point of the turning world.

I wondered how Samaritans are trained to handle this in their telephone counselling, and whether we have as a society acknowledged the significance of presence, as distinct from advice and comforting words.  Just to be clear, I think the term body language is wholly inadequate and out of place here.  It gives itself away, by implying that there is still something to say (language), but that it is said as it were by miming or expressing it with your body.  What he was getting at and I was seeing was that there are times when there is nothing to say, and the only appropriate and commensurate response is simply and solely to be in the presence of the other.

This led me to recall two times when I had grasped this with immediacy and clarity.  The first was when Cicely Saunders the founder of the Hospice Movement shared with me what she saw as the heart of the process of what might be called good dying.  Often the dying neither seek, nor want words. What they are looking for is someone to be with them.  And this presence is not just a physical body which might be drowsy, pre-occupied or asleep, but someone who will be with them and “watch with them”.  She knew that I knew that this was exactly what Jesus asked of his disciples when he was in Gethsemane nearing the hour of his death.  He knew that they could bring no comfort, for there was none to be offered.  Sadly, in his case, they failed miserably, and three times at that.

The other occasion was when I had finally arrived on the summit ridge of An Teallach the Scottish mountain that I had longed to climb more than any other.  Some Munro baggers have gone on record as saying that they would happily swap all the others for the experience of climbing this series of peaks. They somehow seem to encompass and represent all the rest in their scale, variety and grandeur.  I was with my oldest daughter, who had been born in Edinburgh, and who was in a papoose on my shoulders when I first tried to climb the mountain nearly twenty years earlier.  She and my son, who was also with us, enjoyed and relished every step of the way.  On the main summit she finally broke her silence: for we usually climb in silence, and said, “Now I understand, dad”.  That was all.  And after that seeming infinity of time that accompanies the pause on a long-anticipated summit, we began the descent by completing the horseshoe.

Nothing more.  Silence surrounding the perfect encapsulation of all that we were experiencing. It might have been a hug, I suppose, but that would not have been right there and then.  And what her words meant were simply that she realised that there was nothing to say.  We were together, and she knew exactly how and felt, and what to say and when.  But just in case it is unclear, none of this would have been possible by smartphone or selfies: there are times when you need to be in the same place, together, and in silence.  Who can possibly understand, let alone measure the therapeutic value of such moments and times?  Who would dare, or even want to?  So can we resist any pressure to reduce counselling and therapy to mere words, and recognise that in residential living there are daily opportunities to be in each other’s presence without any need for them?

Less than 24 hours after writing that question I was re-reading An Unquiet Mind by Dr Kay Jamison.  It is an autobiographical account of manic-depression.  On page 118 I found these words: “The debt I owe my psychiatrist is beyond description.  I remember sitting in his office…thinking ‘What on earth can he say to make me feel better or keep me alive?’ Well there never was anything he could say, that’s the funny thing.  It was all the desperately optimistic, condescending and things he didn’t say that kept me alive: all the warmth and compassion I felt from him that could not have been said.”

She has put the whole thing neatly in a nutshell.

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