|For the past week I’ve been in Winnipeg visiting my father in hospital. He’s lost much of his cognitive, language and spatial abilities, and memory, and he’s in hospital because they suspect that the drug he’s been using to slow his cognitive decline is responsible for two recent migraines (something he’s never suffered from before). Every hospital visit is an opportunity for a review of his current living arrangements, and they’ve decided he will need to move to a home that offers him more assistance than what he’s had.
So for the past six days we’ve been putting in time together talking about what’s important to us. Some days he was much clearer than others, and on those days I documented what he said he wanted, worried about and cared about, and what he wanted people to know, and to do for him. I’ve had the advantage of many hours of heart to heart talks with him over the years, so I was able to read his expressions and help him find some of the words he was reaching for, and he made it clear he wanted to take full advantage of this while I was there. We worked at it steadily, until his words started to flow freely, even effortlessly. He did best when he stopped trying so hard.
What he got out of it was a document that contains the things he most wants to remember, what he wants to be free to do, and what he wants his loved ones to know, and I’ve distributed this document, for others to maintain and to read back to him from time to time. And as a result he also got a sense that he doesn’t have to ‘re-remember’ all these things every day, so that he can let go of these thoughts and let others do his remembering for him.
What I got out of it was a whole lot more. It was a humbling experience for me, since I’m so much like my Dad it’s scary; I was looking at what could be my future 25-30 years from now. I cannot imagine handling all this as remarkably as he has. Here are just ten of the important things I learned from him this past week:
- How to communicate empathy. I often come across as dispassionate, in my attempt to understand and be helpful to people who are struggling. People sometimes don’t know whether I’m lousy at communicating what I feel, or deliberately hiding my feelings, or just not feeling much. I learned this week that consciously and articulately conveying what you feel about another’s passions and anguish, is usually more important than actually acting usefully on those feelings. That doesn’t mean gushing and emoting — communicating your empathy clearly is a thought/feeling synthesis that’s difficult and takes a lot of work and practice. But this week it was an essential skill for me, and I began to begin to learn it.
- How to listen attentively. Many of us start thinking about our response before the person we’re talking with has even finished speaking. When you’re dealing with someone with cognitive challenges, you are forced to slow down, listen carefully, fill in the gaps, and ask questions to ensure you’ve really understood. I hope I will have the wisdom to continue practicing this with everyone I speak with.
- The importance of using short sentences. My blog is notorious for paragraph-length sentences, and I usually talk the way I write. My experience this week has convinced me that this tendency serves no one, and makes my ideas and knowledge less accessible to others. I’ve already started noticing, when I listen to others’ conversations, the impact of using short sentences on coherence in every activity in our work and personal lives. But be patient — it will take practice before this new habit percolates into my writing.
- How to think before you speak. A lot of us these days use a kind of “successive approximation” method of communicating. We can speak (and text) very quickly, so we tend to be wasteful getting to our point, and we feel obliged to jump into a conversation, lest we lose our ‘turn’. It is as if a second of silence in a conversation is a wasted opportunity or an indication of inarticulateness, when it is exactly the opposite.
- The importance of selecting the right word. My Dad has a remarkable vocabulary, and as he has become more economical in his speech he uses words that some might consider extravagant, precisely and sparingly. One perfect word saves him hunting his memory for fifteen others.
- Show, don’t tell. When words sometimes fail you, body language and illustration can come to the rescue. And even when they don’t, demonstration is more elegant, more effective and more memorable than exposition.
- Why we should all slow down. When you talk more slowly, you talk more coherently. When you walk more slowly, you notice things you’d otherwise miss. When you eat more slowly, you catch subtlety of flavour you otherwise wouldn’t. You get the idea.
- The importance of home. We get our bearings, our coordinates, everywhere we go, from the place that we call home. The significance of place can never be overestimated. It’s terrible to be homeless, whether we live in the streets, or in a hospital, or in an institution where we can never really belong, even if it’s ironically called a ‘home’.
- Why we write. It’s a form of expression, a conversation, a way to say “hello, world, this is me, this is who I am”. But it’s also, critically, a way to remember, to capture memories and ideas and knowledge and stories and perceptions and points of view so that we don’t have to keep them all alive in our heads.
- How to let go. We all have an exaggerated sense of what we have control over, and eventually we start to realize this, and focus our attention on things we can really change, or influence, and let go of the rest. When you really let go, some amazing things start to happen. You create space for new ideas and possibilities and options and perceptions. You create time to think about what’s really important. You create energy for what you really can do. You open yourself to new perspectives about life, and the world. You learn to accept things you always believed were unacceptable, and which always caused you no end of stress and grief. You learn to laugh in a way that you haven’t since you were a child. You become, in a word, graceful.