This article originally appeared in the Pacific Citizen in March 2015.
I recently read an article written about a family gathering around their mother as she was dying. I was struck by its vulnerable and loving perspective, but most of all by a concept Heather Plett called “holding space.” According to Plett’s article, “holding space” is about supporting another human being without “judging them, making them feel inadequate, trying to fix them, or trying to impact the outcome.” Holding space means “we open our hearts, offer unconditional support and let go of judgment and control.”
I remember holding space for my mom when she was dying. I didn’t know that a concept like this existed, but I knew that only she was in control of her death and all I could do was love her while she made the decision on when it was time to let go. Part of this supportive concept came as the result of a doctor telling me that he no longer predicted how long a person had to live, because he had come across so many Japanese women who should not have lived past a certain point medically, but continued to do so. My mother had Parkinson’s disease for over 20 years and even at the end when a different doctor said that she would not live past 24 hours, she lived for another 30 days. She died the day we brought her home from the hospital. I choose to believe that she wanted to die at home and so she fought for 30 days to come home. When she got home, she didn’t need to fight any longer.
Until I read Plett’s article, I didn’t understand that I had held space for my mom by doing all I could to support her. I loved her every moment we were together, even though I knew that opening my heart that wide I would feel the sadness and fear of her dying even more intensely. And as I recently sat reflecting on her final days, I realized this is also what I did for my transgender son, Aiden. Not so much in the beginning, because I was too afraid to open my heart and let go of control. But eventually I grew strong enough and less afraid. When I got to the point that I could “hold space” for Aiden, it wasn’t easy, but I knew that supporting my son was the only option I would consider.
Although Plett’s article included eight tips on how to hold space well, I have chosen to only include four of them as it relates to my son’s transition from female to male. Here they are:
- Give people permission to trust their own intuition and wisdom. Since being the mother of a transgender child was foreign to me, I simply needed to trust my intuition and accumulated wisdom from the many years I loved my child. I also needed to trust my son. I listened and made decisions with an open heart. If an occasional misstep was made, I sat down and talked to Aiden to clean up my mistake or misunderstanding. He felt respected and I felt like a good mother.
- Don’t take their power away. There were so many times when fear caused me to want to step in and take over. In the beginning, this is what I did. But that only made my child feel misunderstood, powerless and hopeless. When I learned to truly listen and withhold judgment until I got more information, my relationship with Aiden got better. He felt heard and believed that his voice mattered.
- Keep ego out of it. Being the parent, I felt I knew best for my son. But the truth is, he had been doing research both online and talking with other people for years. He had better and more information than I did. So when I let go of the fact that I should know better, our communication grew stronger. I learned from him by asking questions, not in an “interrogation way,” but in a “wanting to understand” way. And when I didn’t take things personally, but tried to look at things more objectively, my feelings didn’t get hurt and my responses were not so reactive. Our relationship got better. Putting my ego aside made all the difference.
- Allow them to make different decisions and to have different experiences than I would. Holding space means respecting my child’s differences and recognizing that those differences may lead them to make choices that I would not make. When I hold space I let go of control and honor these differences. A couple of examples come to mind for my son. The first was when he wanted to have “top surgery” which would remove his breasts. Initially, I was reluctant to support this decision, because I was thinking like a woman and mother, not like an individual trying to align his physical body with how he thought and felt. I also remember the time Aiden wanted to leave college for one year to do a program called Public Allies. I was afraid that if he left school he would never return. But that was not the case. Both of these decisions I was initially not comfortable with. But I asked questions to understand better and trusted my son. In the end, these two decisions have helped to mold the confident, social justice and hardworking advocate Aiden is today.
This past weekend I had dinner with a friend who said his parents seem oblivious to what is just around the corner for them as 72+ year old individuals who are dealing with various health issues. In spite of their age and health, they are having the time of their life, he went on to explain. He said he used to go through their pantry and throw out all the things they shouldn’t eat. Today he doesn’t do that. He probably wished that they exercised more. He doesn’t nag them. Years ago this man and his parents didn’t speak for ten years because of the judgment, control and conditional love that was placed on their relationship. Today he loves them with his whole heart and has a wonderful relationship with them. He is holding space for the decisions they are making for the remainder of their lives.
Holding space is not always easy, whether it be for an aging parent, or a lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender individual, but it is a way to show our unconditional love, respect and support. And isn’t that what we want those we love to feel?
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Diverse Elders Coalition.