Someone I know talks about holding space for people. I wasn’t really sure what this meant until a few weeks ago, but now I know. That gentle presence that allows someone to be in all their rawness, pain or joy, both require a safe space to be fully expressed. People have been holding space for me all year, and I have been doing this as long as I can remember, I just didn’t know it had a name.

Many years ago, I had a job I loved, teaching ‘yellow class’, in a complex area in South London where the students and their families had difficult lives, which they lived with minimal hope for their future. It should have been depressing in many ways, but it wasn’t. We couldn’t use the hall/gym/library when it rained as the roof leaked and the strategically placed buckets meant that the ‘rooms’ couldn’t be used for anything other than collecting water.

My class were blacklisted by the temp/relief teaching agencies. Something about them trashing the room and attacking each other when I wasn’t there. My girlfriend at the time couldn’t believe the violence that could happen at any time if I wasn’t engaging the kids enough. I truly loved that job and ‘my’ kids. I bought them food, I took in my clothes for the ‘dress up’ box, bought resources I couldn’t afford to make sure we could cook together every week.

But the biggest thing I did for those kids was hold space for them. I let them be who they were, I created a safe place for them to cry or yell, be angry or hurt or discover that the world had some positive emotions too. I had to leave though. In the end the child protection case conferences, where as their teacher, I had to go and say whether or not the child should be removed from the home, those conferences ate away at my spirit.

I had to leave a more recent job because I could no longer hold space for the raw pain of teachers trying to keep suicidal students alive, when they had no training in this area. I could no longer hold space for the suicidal kids, the pain in their hearts and mind filled my days and nights. I cannot hold space for this pain now either, I do not have the peace in my heart or the love wrapped around my from my wife, which had sustained my ability to hold space for pain before.

Now this holding space hurts me. But I do not walk away from people who need it. I try to be there and then I have to nurture myself. Perhaps this is the universe telling me it is time to nurture myself. Not to move on or forget or any of those other ridiculous things that people things about grief, but to live rather than exist. To fully engage with my life and the lives of others around me. I know I have moved out of a phase I did not know I was in, where my feelings were numb and I was not totally cognizant of my grief and sorrow.

Now I walk into a room and can feel what others are feeling. Catch an infectious laugh or be hit by a wall of sadness so strong it nearly knocks me over. I have learnt that even when others can feel the same things, that many of them chose to ignore it and walk away, preferring not to hold that space for others. I will have to work out how to heal when that space that I am holding is filled with another’s pain, and how to catch it when it is filled with joy so that I might store some joy for later.

If you hold space and have ideas to help me, please let me know. If you don’t hold space for others, perhaps think about why and what difference it might make if you did.