Author: Matilda Garrido and Greg Brown

Published: April 2022

Matilda and Greg are graduates of the University of Vermont End-of-life Doula Professional Certificate Program. They have been StoryListening Doulas within The Conversation Lab’s StoryListening Project—a brief conversational intervention designed to reduce the existential loneliness of grief during the social distancing of COVID. In this blog, they will share some experiences and lessons learned through their participation. 

Matilda: Hi Greg, it’s good to come together with you to discuss what we each have learned about how to listen effectively through our participation in the Storylistening Project, not only to the storytelling participants, but to others in our lives. Right off the bat I would say that one thing I’ve learned by bearing witness to others’ stories of loss through this project is just how simply listening, without trying to “help” or give advice, can be so difficult!

Greg: Hi Matilda! I’m so grateful to be part of this team! You make a great point. The approaches we’ve been practicing in these listening sessions have absolutely informed other interactions in my life. The shape of my own social life has changed dramatically since March of 2020. Like many others, I have far less in-person interaction than I did pre-pandemic, and my participation in this study has given me the opportunity to sharpen the skills that have helped make those fewer connections more meaningful. It would still be a stretch to say that video communication is a perfect substitute for in-person connection, but I think we’re learning it can go a long way toward alleviating feelings of loneliness. By bearing witness, by not giving advice, we’re talking about refining the listening skills we learned in the UVM End-of-life Doula Professional Certificate program. But we’re also taking it a step further by practicing how to hold this sort of space when we’re not physically present with the storyteller.

Matilda: Exactly, Greg. It’s a whole different paradigm to welcome the silences, rather than feel they require action on our part. I’ve had several occasions where holding the silent spaces rather than trying to fill them has allowed the speaker to open up about something that surprised both of us! It’s so unintuitive to do that in our culture.

Greg: That’s been my experience as well. Holding space for silence is not something that comes naturally to many of us. It was initially surprising to me how just how much energy and focus it took to say nothing! It’s something I’ve had to really practice in my end-of-life doula work generally, and specifically over Zoom. Recognizing that it takes time for storytellers to formulate their thoughts and to express the grief they’ve been carrying, we really concentrate on not interrupting. We want to make sure that the details important to the storyteller are given time to come to the surface. If the storyteller pauses for five seconds, I might begin to formulate a follow-up question or an invitation to share additional details, but often they’ll continue sharing more without my prompting in just a couple of additional seconds. I try to lean in and maintain eye contact during those longer pauses, but some storytellers aren’t immediately comfortable living in these extended silences either. In a recent session I apparently paused so long that the storyteller finally asked if their screen was frozen! They were wondering if I’d lost my internet connection. I had to remind myself it’s important to move, to nod slowly, to do something to show I was still there, present and listening — holding cyberspace, as it were.

Matilda: Yes, it’s interesting to consider how the use of technology helped or hurt, or both, the ability of our study participants to open up. Since the topic of personal loss and grief is potentially so heavy, my feeling is that having that little bit of extra distance may help storytellers open up rather than hinder. Additionally, they were joining from the comforts of their own home or office, rather than a more sterile or clinical setting such as a lab interview room or someone else’s office. I am certain these factors impacted their sharing, and wonder to what degree.

Greg: That’s a great point, and one I hadn’t considered—except, perhaps, when the occasional cat leaps into view! I wanted to come back to how you mentioned it can be so difficult to listen without feeling an urge to “help” or to give advice. When we first started conducting these sessions in mid 2020, I was immediately struck by the weight of these stories, the depth of grief being shared. It was a challenge not to give in to my urge to try to fix, re-frame, minimize, or redirect from the grief I was hearing. My mind would circle back to old standby responses I might have given in a different context like “At least you had an opportunity to see them over Facetime before they died,” or even worse, sharing my own story in response: “I know exactly how you feel.” With practice, it became easier to quiet the responses circling in my own head, trusting that the right reply would come to me if and when the time was right. How about you, Matilda? Do you feel more confident in these sessions than you did a year ago? Are there phrases or approaches you’ve learned to embrace or avoid? 

Matilda: Yes, I’ve also had to curb my urge to help or comfort, which I think is a supportive impulse but not what we are looking at in this project, especially given that we are not trained as therapists. What I battled against was the feeling that there was something I was “supposed” to do while witnessing the pain or distress of another as they shared their stories. Keeping focused on the idea that our true intent was to let the stories unfold in an atmosphere of total openness and acceptance without shaping or guiding their delivery or progress almost seemed to “give me permission” not to actively try to help. Also, having the knowledge that Dr. Gramling and the team would be immediately available if we did witness a clinical level of distress alleviated my concerns about the ultimate wellbeing of our subjects as they waded into these potentially difficult waters.

Greg: Absolutely. Knowing the team was on standby was a great comfort even though I never needed to pick up the phone for immediate assistance. Your experience having to resist the urge to shape the story reflects my own. We’re culturally conditioned to offer advice or redirection when someone shares their grief. It’s hard to just sit with it. It takes a lot of energy to listen so attentively without speaking up, even if there are no physical indications that we’re working so hard. It strikes me that it sometimes took a while for our storytelling participants to get used to this unfamiliar dynamic, too. Some of them couldn’t help but wonder if there was something they were “supposed” to say. In about one in three of my sessions, a participant would say something along the lines of “What would you like me to say?” Or they’d finish up a story with “Was that what you were looking for?” It apparently felt initially awkward to some participants that there was no particular story I was expecting them to tell, and my challenge was to remind them through as few words as possible that they controlled what to share. I would gently nudge them back to their story by saying something like: “You deserve space to share this story exactly as it comes to you. It’s clearly something that’s been weighing on you.” 

Matilda:  I had that experience too – in the beginning, some storytellers really wanted to give “us” exactly what we were looking for, and I explained that the purpose of the research was just to provide them with an opportunity to share whatever they wished, and that they should not feel obligated to share anything they weren’t comfortable sharing. I found our guiding questions helpful – “what surprised you most?  Is there anything else you’d like to tell me about X?” – when they seemed to feel stuck. They clearly wanted to be helpful and I think some initially thought the expectation was that they’d talk about certain feelings or events. Letting the conversation expand naturally at their own pace sometimes surprised both the participant and myself. A couple of times they remarked “I had never thought about that/never thought about it in this way/have never shared that before.”

Greg: Resisting the urge to lead and holding space for whatever came up led us to catch some incredibly moving stories of grief, and also of strength and resilience. There were times that not having expectations for how a session might unfold would make it difficult to know when to wrap up. Having accompanied one storytelling participant on a 3.5 hour session in the first month or two of the study, I had to remind myself that it was okay if the next person only spoke for ten minutes. That, too, was good enough. But it could be tricky to know when a session was over, when it was time to say goodbye. When I sensed a storyteller might be winding down, I would reword some of the insight they shared as I’d heard it. At this point, if they had more to share, they would begin to speak again. If they remained quiet, I would thank them for the honor of hearing their story, and we’d wrap up. One moment that sticks with me is the time a participant listened as I identified the key themes I’d heard in her story. She sighed, smiled, then she thanked me for sharing my wisdom. I met her smile with a smile, because I’d said nothing new! “That all came from you!” I reminded her. Matilda, I’d like to adapt one of the questions we sometimes use in our sessions for use in our conversation now: is there anything you’d meant to say about your experience listening to these stories that you haven’t shared yet? What did this experience mean to you?

Matilda: I found myself struggling with feeling confident that it was the right time to end the session too, Greg. Some sessions naturally concluded; for others, it didn’t feel so clear to me that it was okay to say goodbye. I found myself wrapping up with “Is there anything else you would like to share with me about X?” a lot because it felt as though that kind of signaled that we might be nearing the end. Sometimes people opened up more, sometimes they said they were complete. In that way, I felt I left the choice to end in their hands. In any case, at the end I always thanked them profusely for sharing their loved one with me and with the project.

Thank you for asking me that question. I learned two things about myself during this process that I found valuable and will continue to find valuable in the work I do with hospice patients and with the bereaved in general. One thing which I discussed with the team was how, if given the opportunity to rewatch my sessions, there were parts of the session that I did not recall until seeing them again. Through discussion with all of you I identified this as a potentially protective measure; some things I listened to are not mine to hold past the immediate sharing. We heard so many stories of extreme trauma. Second, which goes along with this, is how important our debriefing sessions were for me both in terms of the project but also my own experience. Feeling heard and acknowledged by our project group brought home to me how important processing a listening experience with others and asking for and receiving support to do that can be.

Lastly, I learned so much about human resilience! All our participants came to the project with a desire to share their stories to help others. They were so appreciative of the opportunity. This is the power of listening and feeling heard. What about you? What was most surprising for you? 

Greg: I wasn’t expecting how much the experiences I gained through this project would change my daily interactions. I haven’t seen any of the study data yet, but I sometimes catch myself wondering how much more supported our participants feel after taking this opportunity to share. I think of the ripples when they return to their lives carrying a lighter load. As for myself, I’m generally more mindful that the people I bump into are likely to be carrying with them some level of pandemic-related grief. I’m more likely now than I was in August 2020 to begin my interactions with “It’s good to see you. How have you been coping?” than I am by launching right into “You wouldn’t believe the day I’ve had!”

I’m also surprised by the sadness I feel now that the project is winding down. Eighteen months ago, I didn’t have any idea how much this project would sustain me. I wasn’t giving all that much thought to how much I’ve missed interacting with people outside my immediate bubble of friends, family, and coworkers. The opportunity to hear these stories has given me some tremendously energizing if brief moments of connection. While I of course can’t share with my own friends and family the stories I’ve heard, when I’ve struggled with isolation I do find myself reflecting back on the tremendously inspiring examples of resilience we’ve witnessed.

I share your sense, Matilda, that we can’t overstate the importance of our regular check-ins with the doula team. Holding these stories in confidence is essential, and so our meetings provided us with a crucial opportunity to process the grief shared with us, along with the beauty and even joy. I cannot imagine a more supportive team, and I’m so grateful for this opportunity to be a storylistener.

Matilda: I’m very grateful as well, Greg, and treasure the little community we’ve all built around this project. I hope the data we’ve helped to gather will be of help. Thank you!