My Father's Gift of Silence

November 18, 2020

5 min read


Sometimes it’s what we don't say that becomes our greatest gift.

When I was a little girl, a couple in our community went through a terrible tragedy. They lost a young child and were in deep despair. Shortly afterwards, my mother ran into the father at the local supermarket. He turned to my mother and said, “Your husband saved our life. He was the one more than anyone else who helped us get through this incredible loss.”

When my mother returned home, she wanted to know what my father could have possibly said that made such an impact on this couple. What message of solace and comfort was given to lift them from the dark abyss of despair?

“What did you say?” she asked him. “I know you went over to their home and spent time with them. What did you tell them?”

My father’s reply baffled my mother.

“I said nothing. What could I possibly tell a couple who just lost their child?”

“I said nothing. What could I possibly tell a couple who just lost their child?”

My mother asked my father about his conversation numerous times. She wanted the secret to his lightening of their heavy load, but my father insisted that he had said nothing.

A few weeks later the couple came over our home. Now was my mother’s chance. After sitting down for a few minutes and giving the couple refreshments, my mother gently said, “You told me that my husband saved your life. He helped you the most when you went through your awful grief. What did my husband say?”

The man paused. He then gave the secret of my father’s consolation.

“Rebbetzin, your husband did not say one word.”

My mother could not comprehend the response.

“The Rabbi came over our home. He walked over to me without saying anything. And then he reached over to me, took my hands into his and hugged me with all his heart. I looked up and saw the Rabbi’s face. There were tears falling from his eyes. You cannot imagine what that felt like for me. The Rabbi felt my pain. I was not sitting alone in my suffering.”

My mother was quiet, absorbing the message this man whose life had been turned upside down was giving.

“No, your husband did not speak. I didn't need him to give me words. I needed his heart and soul.”

When I recall this story about my father, I realize an awesome truth.

We sometimes think that we must fill space with words. We have someone in our lives who is going through difficulty, we know someone who is facing sorrow and sadness. We are at a loss. What do we say? What do we do? How do we make this all better?

In today’s pandemic world many are walking around as if they have been given a punch in the gut. Marriages are suffering. The lockdown has strained relationships. Teens are expressing anxiety, loneliness and a feeling of despair. Kids don’t know what it means to go to school on a normal schedule. They miss their friends. Parents find themselves frustrated and frightened. We are going through a chaos we have never experienced before.

What is the greatest gift we can give our loved ones?

I turn to the wisdom of our sages that has anchored us for thousands of years. “I have been raised amongst the wise and I have found nothing better for the body than silence” (Ethics of the Fathers, 1:17).

When you want to give of yourself, give a listening heart. Sometimes a person in pain needs you to stay silent. Feel their pain. See their suffering. And say not a word. Just show that you are here for them, that you won't turn your back on them. You are not too busy or tired, too absorbed with your own problems and life to put aside your troubles for theirs.

A listening heart means that we are silent and open our most inner self to the anguish of another.

A listening heart means that we do not simply hear with our ears. We don’t keep talking, giving ideas or solutions or judgment calls. We are silent and open our most inner self to the anguish of another. That’s it. And with this gift of silence comes an understanding that we are fully present. Perhaps we can’t fix anything or take away the pain, but we can feel. In our silence comes compassion, understanding and empathy. And we share the load.

My father tried to transmit this message to me throughout my life. There were times that I faced disappointments and fears as we all do. My father never filled the space with empty words. All I had to do was look at my father’s face, see his glistening eyes, feel his strong hand hold mine, and I knew that I was not alone. His presence spoke louder than any word.

In the final days of my dear father’s life, it was now my father who was facing the challenge of his life. It was my turn to show that I had absorbed his deep wisdom.

I recall sitting at my father’s bedside, just the two of us. I struggled to find the words. My father took my hand in his. There were moments where we said nothing. What is there to say?

I looked at my father’s face. I saw his pain as he saw mine. We both shed our tears. Silence filled the room. I knew that more than any words I could say, I would give the gift of a listening heart. I would be there for my father and he would know that he would be loved and remembered. Forever.

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