The Gift of Being Seen
By Susanne Liebich
In the last few years, my mother has struggled with memory loss and her world has become smaller. Her former life included many wonderful friends and an active social life with my dad, and with the anxiety that comes with dementia, she has let go of many of those relationships. Only because my dad was hospitalized, she agreed to let me take her to dinner. We sat across the table from each other, sampling each other's meals, laughing at each other's stories, and sharing intimacies. At the conclusion of dinner, mom said "we should do this more often- have mother-daughter outings!" I thought about this precious time with her, and realized that what mom needs, really, is so simple: she needs to be seen.
My therapeutic movement work has expanded to include individuals with Alzheimer's, for whom I notice the diminishing of life, the lessening of interaction. I have come to discover that my job is not to entertain them, but rather to "see" them... to find a way to connect with each and every individual, if only for a few minutes or seconds. I learn their names, their histories; I include music they find meaningful. I play and joke with them, too, because laughter is so healing. I lock eyes with them, and I'm constantly talking to them. I let them know I see.
A while back, there was an elderly man in a memory unit who came to my movement class although he was not engaged with the movement. However, I noticed that he sang to the big band era songs. One time, I asked him if he would like to dance with me. He nodded his approval. From then on, our routine was to partner dance for the last 3 minutes of class. What was so amazing to me was that each week, we interacted a bit more... one week he led me in a promenade, another week he led me in turns. Before long, we were talking during our dance. The faces of the residents expressed joy, poignancy, wistfulness. At the end of each of our partner dances, the residents erupted in applause. They were not just onlookers, but part of the dance- perhaps they saw their younger selves. After one particularly joyful dance, I turned to Jack and said, "they're clapping for you!" He looked at me and said with a twinkle in his eye, "I'll dance with you anytime". Sadly, that was our last dance as Jack passed away a few days later. Yet, I take comfort in the fact that in his last few days, Jack felt the gift of being seen.
I also work with children who have suffered profound physical injury and individuals with debilitating conditions such as Parkinson's. I feel that spending so much time in the hospital must be difficult to accept, as perhaps one's identity starts to become defined as the injured or disabled person. I have learned to look at these individuals as an artist would look at "negative space": where some might see white with black lines, I see black with white lines. I say, let's figure out together all the possibilities of movement. Let's not just use our bodies, but also our thoughts and emotions to create a palette of limitless potential. I once spent 4 months teaching movement to a six year old girl who told me "I used to just dance with my feet; now I know I can dance with my whole body." What this little girl has realized is the importance of being seen, not just by others, but by oneself. Letting ourselves be seen, seeing ourselves and seeing others is part of the universal desire for connection. We all have this ability to open the door for someone in our lives and give them the gift of being seen. Don't close your eyes, or you may miss your chance.